COLUMBIA CITY — While many are focused on the construction of the new Columbia City High School, city leaders are already in the planning stages for what will become of the current high school property.

Following the completion of construction of the high school and demolition of the current building, the 56-acre property will be turned over to the Columbia City Parks Department.

With a nearly blank slate and a multitude of possibilities, city leaders have turned to the community for input. A meeting was held at Peabody Public Library last week, and about 25 people from the community turned out to express their opinions on the best use for the new space.

In addition, members of the master plan design and engineering team from Moake Park Group and Jones, Petrie, Rafinski presented results from a recent online survey.

Of the 1,143 people who completed the survey, 49% live within the Columbia City limits, and 94% were Whitley County residents. Fifty-five percent were ages 36-65 and 36% were ages 18-35. More than half of those who completed the survey said they visit the parks at lease once a week.

Based on the results JPR reported several notable observations, published in a booklet distributed at the meeting:

• Multi-functionality: The survey noted many responses desiring to maintain existing and enhance the athletic opportunities while also creating additional park opportunities and amenities for other users.

• Community gathering/social spaces: Responses indicated a desire to have facilities where groups, families and individuals could meet and enjoy the park. Program elements such as community performance spaces and pavilion shelter venues generated more than 85% interest.

• A dog park, playground element and open community space for farmers markets also generated more than 70% in those surveyed.

• Active recreation: A great number of responses noted the desire for multi-use athletic fields and facilities for personal and active recreation.

• Beyond the high level of interest in outdoor sports, more than 70% said they would use an indoor recreation facility if present.

• Embracing nature: Access to the river for canoeing, fishing and observing the river were noted to have some level of importance with 77% of those surveyed.

• Interest in nature trails for mountain biking and hiking were also noted with 80% of respondents indicating their interest in using such amenities.

• Personal use: Many of those surveyed saw the need to utilize facilities for personal use, whether it be for fitness and training, or using the facilities to play with their children or canine companions.

• 62% polled said they used the parks system for walking and 59% polled said they use the park as a space for their children to play.

• Revenue generation: The feedback indicated a high priority to consider venues and elements that can generate revenue to support the on-going operation and maintenance, creating a sustainable park.

Members of the community had the opportunity to talk during the meeting, with several speaking out in favor of a skate park and biking facilities, despite them being low on the survey list — with only 7% stating a skate park is “definitely needed.”

“Over a year ago, Mike (Thomas) and I started fundraising for a skate park,” said Tad Varga, city councilman. “Within our community, there’s a strong interest. The survey didn’t reflect that. Even though it’s low on here (survey), there is a lot of interest at the meetings we’ve had.”

Two other individuals, one from Fort Wayne and another from Warsaw, indicated that they would travel to Columbia City to use BMX and skate park facilities if they were added to the new park — subsequently spending money on food, beverages and gas in the community.

Kim Varga brought up the need for an additional indoor pool in the community.

“A lot of people say the community needs an indoor pool,” Kim Varga said.

Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed indicated that they wanted to have Blue River canoe/kayak access. However, Mark Ellis explained that there is an existing launch in the current Morsches Park, near the U.S. 30 bridge.

“That could probably be remodeled or reworked so it’s useful,” Ellis said.

Along those lines, JPR explained that the master plan does not only need to include the new addition, but changes could be planned for Morsches Park as well — looking at the “big picture.”

One of the first issues that will be addressed at the new park is flooding. On the day before the first day of school, Columbia City High School flooded once again — an issue that was part of the community’s decision to construct a new facility in the first place.

A representative from JPR said that the flooding issue is caused by water coming from the north, and that engineers would make a plan to mitigate that in the future.

The meeting ended with attendees splitting up into groups to design their own plans for the space, using large foam boards and pinning different items in locations of their choosing.

The city will also be meeting with students from Mary Raber Elementary School to receive input, as well as the Columbia City Youth Council, comprised of Columbia City High School students.

After that, JPR will return to the community with several options for the community to review, eventually resulting in the master plan.

It is expected that the city will take possession of the property in 2021, after Whitley County Consolidated Schools completes the demolition of the current high school building. Only two outbuildings — the current weight room and the football lockers/concessions near the athletic field — will be salvaged.