COLUMBIA — Seven years ago, Barbara Hoppe was fighting to preserve the park at Old 63 and Broadway as a leader of the Coalition to Save Stephens Lake. Now Columbia’s Sixth Ward city councilwoman, she still ventures to the park with her dogs when she needs to take a break.
Even though Hoppe loved the park when it was simply a “little neat swimming outdoor place” owned by Stephens College, she’s happy with the job the city has done on its development. It looks more and more like what she had hoped it would become.
“I imagined it would be like a Seurat painting with people sitting on blankets and having picnics, and having the chance to sort of slow down and relax,” Hoppe said. “It always makes me smile now when I see a couple under a tree with a little picnic.”
It’s Sunday afternoon in Stephens Lake Park, and the scene is much like Hoppe’s vision. A few people nap under the shade of tall oak trees. Parents eye children flitting across the playground. On the beach, families share picnic baskets and sunscreen while kids laugh and splash in the clear blue water of the lake. Others lean lazily against guardrails with fishing poles in hand, patiently waiting for a bite. At the Gordon Shelter, the MHC Kenworth company picnic is going strong.
One family visiting the park is the Angles, who have just arrived ready to hit the water. Although the Angles recently moved to Columbia from Colorado, Dave Angle is no stranger to the park. Fifteen years ago, he served as a lifeguard while a student at MU. Now, it’s his son’s appreciation for the lake that brings him back to the park.
“We live very close, and this little guy loves the water,” he said. “It’s a great community resource because it’s free and kid-friendly. Plus, sometimes it’s nice not to swim in a chlorine-filled pool.”
City park developers would agree the park is nice, but they believe it can only get better. Crews from the Parks and Recreation Department are beginning work on a series of projects designed to further beautify and improve the park.
Work has already begun on a waterfall that will cascade 200 feet down a slope just north of the lake. The falls will be created using Missouri limestone boulders and will be sourced by lake water channeled through a recirculating system. Parks officials say it will aerate and filter the lake water.
A $50,000 gift from the estate of Russ and Mary Nall will pay not only for the waterfall but also for an 18-foot bridge that will allow trailgoers to cross over the falls. Construction of the bridge is already under way. It will feature steel I-beam supports with the same decking and railing as the pre-existing boardwalks. The span should be done within a few weeks, but the waterfall won’t be done until mid-winter, senior parks planner Mike Snyder said.
“What we’re trying to do is get the trail back in order and functioning as quickly as possible, but the waterfall will still be in construction through winter,” Snyder said.
Another feature being built this fall is a sprayground on the northwestern shore of the lake that will feature fountains for children to play in and beat the heat. Major construction began this past spring but won’t be completed before cooler temperatures set in. Snyder said the facility will be ready for use by the spring swimming season.
“That’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens sometimes,” he said. “We try to do things in the offseason. Once we don’t have to water and weed anymore, then we’ll have a lot of time to dedicate to these other projects.”
Next on the agenda is an amphitheater that was approved by the City Council on Aug. 20. Preliminary work is set to begin soon. The amphitheater will be in a “naturally bowl-shaped” area in the northwest corner of the park, Snyder said. Grading work has already been done on the seating area, which features natural slopes and terraces.
“The seating area will be natural grass, so people can bring chairs or blankets to use for events,” Snyder said.
The next focus of the project will be on the amphitheater stage, which has yet to be designed. Snyder’s office plans to contact local groups that might perform there to get input on the plans, including whether more light or sound equipment is necessary.
While it’s clear Stephens Lake Park has a long way to go, it’s also clear that it has come a long way since it’s future as a city park was debated seven years ago.
“Everything is pretty much all new construction,” Snyder said. “The roads, parking lots, were built new. Other than the lake and the lay of the land, I think everything is new.”
The evolution of Stephens Lake Park hasn’t come cheap. Since the city bought the park from Stephens College in 2001 for $7 million plus interest, officials have estimated they would pour about $2.5 million into its development. The purchase and subsequent work have been financed by voter-approved parks sales taxes.
While Hoppe concedes she also enjoyed the property in a more natural state, she likes what city planners have done with it.
“We really saw it as a central city park, like Forest Park in St. Louis or New York’s Central Park,” she said of those who supported the initial purchase. “It seemed like it would be a real loss to Columbia to lose this greenspace.”
Benny Jeske, an employee of MHC Kenworth who was enjoying his company’s picnic and just moved to Columbia from Kansas City, likes what he sees.
“I’m very impressed by the park. It was a convenient place for our picnic,” he said. “The lake area is nice. We would definitely consider coming back.
“It’s nice to see all the people out.”