KENNETT SQUARE—When schools, businesses, gyms, and even other area parks and preserves closed last March, and the world turned upside down, the gates of Anson B. Nixon Park remained open. More than ever before, the park became a place of refuge, solace, and peace for countless community members.
Families, couples, runners, walkers, and disc golf players all witnessed the soothing and reassuring unfurling of spring. Fresh green leaves and pink-tinged blossoms budded, goslings and ducklings hatched, sharp winter breezes softened, and the park’s 106 acres and two and a half miles of trails gave people space to distance and breathe.
Over the months of the shutdowns, the park quietly played host to safely distanced exercise classes, play dates, a writer’s group, and at least one small pond-side wedding.
Many locals who flocked to the park during this time didn’t know why the park wasn’t closed when other facilities were. But it’s the autonomy of the Kennett Area Park Authority (KAPA), says Board Chair Richard Lyon, that enabled the Board to decide to keep the park open. “Being able to maintain our independence and viability is one of the advantages of not being part of the Chester County park system,” he says.
“It’s our park,” says Board Vice-Chair John Gaadt. “Last spring, we maintained security and safety, took every precaution to protect park users, and came to the conclusion that keeping the park open was in the best interests of the community. And it was a much needed resource for the community during these challenging times.”
One of the drawbacks of this independence, however, is that KAPA is limited in how it can raise the critical funding needed to maintain, preserve, and continue to develop the park’s resources. Although KAPA is a joint municipal authority of the Borough of Kennett Square and Kennett Township (27 acres of the park are in the Borough and 79 in the Township), KAPA has no ability to raise taxes. “Anson B. Nixon Park is unique in the fact that it is one of only two municipal parks in the state, that we know of, not under the full jurisdiction and tax-based financial support of a county, town, or borough,” says Lyon.
KAPA receives only a few dollars in funding for each Borough resident annually. As Lyon says, this is astounding in light of how much the park offers to all area residents. And, he says, speaking in strictly fiscal terms, “every property within walking distance of a park is worth more.” As a result of these fundraising restrictions, the new nonprofit group, Friends of Anson B. Nixon Park, has been formed. This group is putting together a plan for targeted fundraising to support KAPA, park maintenance, and the strategic plan. This group is critical, says Lyon, to the ongoing viability of the park.
“If you look at the park on a map, you realize it’s kind of a big deal,” Lyon says.
And it’s interconnected to everything that surrounds it, too. Projects like watershed restoration, for example, effect other communities and help support the goals of both Kennett Square Borough and Kennett Township. A bird’s eye view of the park also reveals how new developments in Kennett and East Marlborough Townships are making the park more central than it once was. And its trails, particularly in the absence of linked sections of sidewalk, serve to connect developments like the Flats at Kennett with downtown Kennett Square. The park and its trails will also be an integral part of the 14-mile Kennett Greenway loop.
The park, which opened in 1993, nestles largely between the East Branch of the Red Clay Creek and one of its tributaries. As the park’s new logo conveys, in addition to the trails, the park comprises both woodland and fresh-water habitats as well as a pavilion for community entertainment and engagement. Those who walk, run, or play in the park follow in the footsteps of generations who went before.
The site of the late 18th-century Chambers family homestead, for example, is now an established meadow. The park also encompasses historic woodlands, including a beech grove with specimens dating back over 250 years. The Kennett Beech, the oldest tree in Kennett Square, still stands strong, though Tropical Storm Isaias’ fierce winds from the east felled several of these mighty giants this summer. These trees are laid down and decomposing back into the soil, serving as another reminder of nature’s cycles. As Lyon says, “There are lots of little beech trees that will be happy to see sunlight.”
It takes many hands to maintain this vast area, and office manager Sheila Tekavec, who’s a warm and enthusiastic ambassador for the park, is grateful for the engaged and hardworking professionals who volunteer their time on the boards for both KAPA and the Friends of Anson B. Nixon Park.
In addition to invaluable funding from the Joines Foundation, the Hadley Fund, and others, Tekavec also emphasizes that community engagement, including the work done by partners like Longwood Rotary, the Boy Scouts, and an exceedingly dedicated volunteer who works year-round to groom the top-rated 18-hole disc golf course, is important. The only prerequisite for joining the Friends of Anson B. Nixon Park, she says, is a love for the park.
The four part-time staff members, including technician Bob Warner, mechanic Eric Petrucci, and park manager Jake Riggins, rely on public feedback.
When there’s a problem like the gate to the dog park needing to be fixed, or when someone sees an area that could use improvement, Tekavec says, “We want people to contact us.”
The new plan for revitalizing the soccer fields and adding community garden space as well as a meadow and pollinator gardens, for example, came about in part as a result of helpful feedback from community members.
In a way, Tekavec’s new role brings her full circle. As a girl, she remembers asking her mother, “Will there be trees when I grow up?” “I’ve always been concerned with environmental stewardship,” she says, “even before I fully understood the concept. In light of the environmental challenges we are now facing, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to be part of an organization that is actively involved in local community events and recreation while working toward solutions for the planet.”
At any given time, park officials are balancing a number of different projects at various stages. Recent projects have included the new, safer entrance with additional parking, the creation of the dog park, and a pavilion rebuilt by Longwood Rotary. Some of these projects, such as the ongoing stream bank restoration in partnership with the Brandywine Red Clay Alliance, are partially funded by grants. “John Gaadt’s wife, Suzanne, also recently gave a donation to the park for the riparian buffer project from her small business, Give a Fig,” says Tekavec.
“John has been so involved in the stream restoration work, and Suzanne’s generosity on top of that was an unexpected gift," Tekavec said.
The Board’s biggest goal in the near future, Lyon says, is identifying some of the short- and long-term goals in the 2013 Master Plan. One of the exciting projects laid out in the plan is the restoration and repurposing of the original three Kennett Waterworks buildings as a vibrant community center compound.
In the nearer term, thanks to grants from the E. Kneale Dockstader Foundation, Chester County Community Foundation, and Brandywine Conservancy, KAPA will remove the blacktop from the old North Walnut Street entrance and transition to a broad area of lawn in a wooded landscape which will greatly reduce runoff into the streams.
Plans are also underway to add two pickleball courts, as well as restored natural woodland habitat with native plantings and a pollinator garden in preserved open space. It’s an ongoing challenge, Lyon says, to balance the needs of all who use the park—from thousands of runners at the Kennett Run to fishermen, walkers, and family groups.
Although all of the park’s events—including the Trout Rodeo, Kennett Run, disc golf tournaments, and concerts, as well as picnic pavilion and stage rentals—are suspended until the pandemic is under control, Tekavec says they haven’t ruled out doing some virtual events this summer and are eager to resume programming as soon as it’s safe to do so. In the meantime, the park remains open for everyone to use safely and carefully.
Over these past months, Lyon was pleased to see families playing in the creek and enjoying streamside picnics. “I think people are remembering the small pleasures,” he says. “It seems as if life slowed down a bit.” It’s now been a nearly complete cycle of four seasons since the COVID pandemic reached Kennett Square and the park remains open to all, every day from sunrise to sunset.
The danger of having such a beautiful and well maintained resource on our doorstep is that it can easily be taken for granted. “It’s important to raise the profile of the park,” Lyon says, “because it’s not guaranteed that this resource you appreciate will always be there.”
Anson B. Nixon Park is our park—to enjoy, to invest in, to steward wisely. With community support, Lyon and Tekavec and the KAPA Board and staff look forward to working to ensure that, in this uncertain world, the future of Anson B. Nixon Park is secure for generations to come.
Gifts to the park can be made through the PayPal link on the website, and checks can be mailed to the KAPA, PO Box 1121, Kennett Square, PA 19348. Go to https://www.ansonbnixonpark.org for updates and more information or contact firstname.lastname@example.org