PAOLA — For the past eight years the Paola Community Garden has sat on city-owned land in the Paola Industrial Park, but garden volunteers have always known they may need to move the amenity if a developer was ever interested in the property.
Over time the garden’s footprint has grown along with its produce, and it now features a bridge, picnic table, shelter, shed and a butterfly garden that includes a memorial tree in memory of Regan Johnson, a 16-year-old Paola High School junior who took her own life in December 2017. Her death led to the creation of the Shifting Gears for Regan suicide prevention organization.
The garden was originally created in the summer of 2012, when the late Larry Criddle and a few of his middle school students helped move the garden from a plot next to the Master Gardeners’ trial garden near the Miami County Extension office to its current location north of Heatherwood Estates in the city’s Industrial Park.
Most recently, a new group of volunteers led by Alexis Shaw has overseen the community garden.
During the August Paola City Council meeting, City Manager Sid Fleming told council members that a local developer has shown interest in building a baseball/softball complex, potentially with indoor batting cages, in the Paola Industrial Park.
The lot being considered is next to the Briley building, and it’s the same lot that currently houses the community garden. Fleming said the lot would likely need to be rezoned to Thoroughfare Access to allow for the development, but he first asked council members if they were interested in moving forward with the proposal because the garden may be required to be relocated. The council members all agreed that the project was worth discussing.
The topic was reviewed again during the September council work session. Fleming referred to the developer as Wickersham Development. Matthew Wickersham, who also owns Oneway Heating & Cooling in Paola, confirmed that he is the one taking a look at the project, but he declined to comment about the current plans because they have yet to be approved by the city.
Fleming said one option would be to split the tract, leaving just over two acres for the garden and the rest for the developer.
Council member Dave Smail said structures have been built at the garden even though organizers were cautioned not to do so because it may need to move, and he questioned whether the city should split off a portion of the tract for the garden.
“I’d hate to see us lose a piece of property,” he said. “I think we should sell it if we get a chance for a factory.”
Council member Leigh House said her main concern with moving the garden is the existing memorial to Regan Johnson.
“That’s what I’m concerned about,” House said.
Council member Aaron Nickelson suggested that if the tract is split for the garden, the same understanding should remain in place so garden volunteers realize it may still need to move at a later date if another development is proposed on the tract.
“I don’t think we should say nothing can ever build there,” he said.
No official decision was made at the work session.
Shaw said it’s still too early in the process to start making any plans to move the garden, but she said the garden volunteers have always been thankful to the city for the land and are prepared to move if needed.
“It is still very early in the process, and I haven’t spoken to the city about the specifics at this point,” Shaw said. “Depending on the project, it may not be a situation that the garden would be required to relocate. But, as always, we are willing to be flexible. We have always had a good working relationship with the city, and I look forward to visiting with them about the project.”