COLUMBIA — It's near sunset at the city-owned Gans Creek Recreation Area, and the sky is showering shades of orange and pink over the former cattle farm of about 320 acres on the southeastern edge of the city.
Destined to become part of a new regional park, the property for now remains free from the sights and sounds of urban development. There are no cars driving by, no glow of city lights. There’s only the static sound of singing crickets, the occasional hoot of a barred owl or the rustle of deer in the forest.
It won’t be this way for long. In September 2007, the city paid $8 million for the property, which was owned and farmed by the Crane family for 130 years. Recently opened to the public, the land remains mostly how the Cranes left it: wide open fields of thick, knee-high grass surrounded by clumps of cedar and hardwood and bisected by the clear-running water of Gans Creek.
Over the next several years, much of the property, along with A. Perry Philips Park to the north, will be transformed into a 460-acre megapark akin to the 533-acre Cosmopolitan Park on the city’s north side. A proposed master plan for the southeast park, which borders Nifong Park and Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, includes an indoor ice rink, an indoor sports complex, an indoor/outdoor water park, a dozen or more sports fields, an area for horses, plus playgrounds and shelters.
Toney Lowery, senior parks planner for the city, said it might take as long as 20 years to fully develop the park. Given the state of the land now, it’s difficult to imagine all the baseball, softball, football and soccer games that might soon be played here. Where now the smell of wet bark rinsed by recent rain blows through the fields, the smell will some day be that of fresh-cut grass or the earthy smell of horses.
Lowery said the surrounding area might eventually become one of the busiest in Columbia, but for now the undeveloped park possesses the quiet atmosphere of farmland. But that's not to say there isn't much activity taking place. The forest and fields are alive with creatures large and small. Three deer step out of the tree line and into the pasture for an evening of grazing, only to be spooked by the presence of people.
Take a few steps into the trees, and it won’t be long before you’re running into spider webs. Bird nests dot the trees, and a hawk screeches overhead. The area is heavily populated by birds, including the giant Canada geese that inhabit Philips Lake.
"There is a heron rookery on the property,” Lowery said. “It's difficult to see at this time of year, but very easy to see in the spring.”
Lowery is among a team of planners working on the design for the new park. Although the plans are elaborate, the team will try to preserve the natural beauty of the land. The creek is one of the key areas of the property the Parks Department is looking to protect, due to its sensitive nature. The city hopes to prevent even minor harm to its water quality.
"Gans Creek has several characteristics that probably make it more sensitive than most of the creeks in the area," Lowery said. "First is the general nature of the area it flows through, which is mainly a karst area, meaning that water flows very easily through the rock. Gans Creek is, in fact, a 'losing stream,' which means it loses more water through its streambed than it receives.
"Second, the Devil's Icebox Cave runs underneath Gans Creek, and because the creek water is infiltrating the ground, some of it would make its way to the Devil's Icebox, which is the only known location of pink planaria. Some types of water pollution could have an adverse effect on this animal. Third, Gans Creek is really a clean creek and has better than average water quality."
The department plans to keep those factors in mind as it develops the park. The master plan proposes a 100-foot buffer on both sides of the creek that would combine with a 61-acre natural preservation area to create an 87-acre zone off limits to development.
Planners also hope to use two ponds and Philips Lake to protect the creek and reduce human impact on the park. The pond will collect storm runoff, allowing chemicals and sediment to settle before reaching the creek. Other detention basins will be scattered around the park, Lowery said. The smaller of two ponds on the property will become a detention basin that will play a key role in improving the water quality of the creek. Lowery said cattle have compromised the quality of the creek water over the years.
The small pond also would be part of a proposed dog park. For now, it’s not much to look at, its surface covered with the green scum of algae. The larger pond to the west, though, is much nicer. Its flat, clear surface reflects the sky and is alive with ripples of movement from the creatures that live within it. The pond harbors healthy populations of bass, crappie and catfish, Lowery said, as well as snapping turtles and even a few muskrats. Planned as a fishing pond, the city will have to do little with it.
On the north side of Gans Road, Philips Lake will be a centerpiece of the park. At present, the lake is surrounded by green space in a serene environment similar to that of the Gans Creek Recreation Area. But park development already is happening here. Construction crews are creating docks and a parking lot for anglers.
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood said planners hope to emphasize the lake as a primary feature of the park. The master plan proposes a lake-loop trail, and the city plans to use a grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation to build a boat ramp.
“There was significant support for the idea of maximizing the use of the lake and having the lake become a focal point of that portion of the park. Such things as trails, shelters, access to the lake via a boat ramp, etc., received strong support,” Hood said, referring to surveys the city solicited from residents.
The privately owned land across the lake from the park is now empty and open. But over the next several years it will fill with homes, offices and businesses, Lowery said.
The creek, which is now the main feature of Gans Creek Recreation Area, is set off from the rest of the property by trees and gently rolling hills, making it seem even more distant from the lights and sounds of city life. Lowery predicts the creek will retain that quiet atmosphere even after the rest of the park becomes active.
"You'll never hear the ball games down here because of the grade change," Lowery said as he stood by the creek.
Signs of the Cranes’ time on this piece of country land are apparent. Barbed-wire fences cut across the property in every direction. Two houses and various barns stand on the land, and the Parks Department has uses in mind for them. One of the houses, for example, could be rented to a resident caretaker who could cut the grass and watch the park in the evening.
Creating a park takes a lot of imagination, a challenge that requires planners to literally make something from nothing. To date, they’ve had a lot of help. Along with the surveys, the city has held several public hearings on the park plan, and it accepted written comment through the end of September. The parks staff will tweak the plan a bit more before sending it to the Columbia City Council for final approval.
One of the primary obstacles remaining is money. Other than the funding for the docks and the boat ramp, the city has no money set aside for development of the park. An extension of the city’s park sales tax, which is scheduled to expire next year, would be the most likely source of cash.
“If it passes we’ll have money to start doing some of the development,” Lowery said. “If it doesn’t pass, it will be a lot slower.”