Community gardens at Vermijo, Westside Center?

       With growing interest in community gardens, plans are being sown to sprout them on city-owned properties.

The proposed Vermijo Park garden site is in the open area in front of the trees, west of the baseball field (a fence for which is in the foreground). A public meeting on the plan will be Monday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Westside Community Center.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Two proposed sites are on the Westside - west of the baseball field in Vermijo Park and in the playground area of the former Buena Vista school (now the city- owned West-side Community Center). Each is less than a quarter-acre in size, according to Chris Lieber, City Parks development manager.
       The Vermijo proposal is scheduled for a public meeting Monday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Westside Center, 1628 W. Bijou St. Leading the meeting will be City Parks, which would provide the land and water, and the non-profit Pikes Peak Urban Gardens (PPUG), which would organize the gardens and help those doing the planting. PPUG co-founder Larry Stebbins said a chief goal of the meeting is to uncover any neighborhood objections. If there's a major concern, the plan will be withdrawn. If the issues are minor, attempts will be made to work them out and “we'll start planting in the spring,” he said.
       If the plan goes through, it would begin a transformation of the long-unused western end of Vermijo Park, which is off 26th Street, just north of Highway 24. Currently the site is the center part of an unofficial turnaround in the dirt parking lot, with an overgrown part of Fountain Creek just west of it. Lieber noted that an upcoming extension of the Midland Trail would clean up the creek area while passing right next to the garden.
       A public meeting for the Westside Community Center garden proposal is tentatively planned in January. Prelimi-nary meetings, initiated by the center and neighboring residents, have been occurring weekly since September, although uncertainty lingers because the center currently has no funding to remain open after March 31. Lieber said he hopes that by January the center's open/close situation will be more clear, but “even if the center closes its doors, there may be another group that wants to take the garden on.”
       Community gardens provide opportunities for people who may not have room on their own property to rent roughly 12-by-12 plots on land tilled for that purpose.
       The city currently has three operations that loosely fit the “community garden” definition, with one of them (the Harlan Wolfe Garden in the Cheyenne area) set up as a demonstration garden in cooperation with PPUG.
       The concept of proliferating gardens on City Parks land was a brainstorm of Stebbins, whose group has a goal (stated on its website) of adding up to four community gardens locally each year. On the Westside, PPUG has worked with local residents to establish community gardens at the Holy Theophany Church off North Chestnut Street (two years ago) and on an empty lot on West Pikes Peak Avenue (this year).
       Stebbins said he is driven by his belief in home-grown food, “healthy exercise” and the way such enterprises “build community, which is huge.” He is also encouraged by the hearty response PPUG has received. The West Pikes Peak site (titled the “Old Colorado City Community Garden”) had a waiting list even before the planting season, and a PPUG informational meeting at Holy Theophany in November drew 100 people, with 200 already signed up for a follow-up meeting in January, Stebbins reported.
       “It's kind of blowing me away. It was an idea that was ripe for the community,” he said (and immediately apologized for the pun.) Asked to elaborate, he said: “I think people are ready to learn how to garden. Anytime there is a concern about where food comes from [such as the E.Coli spinach scare], people say, 'I know what I put in my garden.'”
       After PPUG contacted City Parks, staff began looking at potential sites. Based on the geographical areas where PPUG has found its strongest support, the search was narrowed down to “three general areas” of town - the Westside, downtown and northeast, Lieber said. Out of 40 candidate properties in those areas, five were chosen based on sunlight, water availability, parking, and “a place where we could put a garden that wouldn't displace a current use,” he explained.
       After the Parks Advisory Board said OK to the plan, Lieber and PPUG began setting up public meetings.
       The other three sites are Dorchester Park, Coleman Park and the Michelson property, according to Lieber's report to Parks Board.
       The overall strategy at all the sites is for the city and PPUG to establish a formal agreement, which would ensure that the city would be reimbursed for its water costs, Lieber said. PPUG in turn would work diligently with the gardeners through the first year, providing tips on gardening and self-governance. The latter would then allow the space renters to set up an organization through which they could run the garden themselves. Such a dynamic is already taking place at the Old Colorado City Community Garden, Stebbins said.

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