Julian Ridlen AIM High Park becomes an official county park

Aug. 26—The Julian Ridlen AIM High Park was designated as a county park recently by the Commissioners of Cass County. The park opened in 2003, but became an official county park this July, said Deb Waggoner, park director.

The sports complex features 100+ acres of land and is the host for various tournaments and organizations. These include the Special Olympics, Northern Indiana USSSA, t-ball, the Logansport Girls Softball Group and the Cass County Family YMCA, its website says. The AIM in the name stands for Adolescent Intramural Mentoring. Cass County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Roger Kitts II said the park became part of his responsibilities when he became judge.

"AIM High Park became an official county park by virtue of an ordinance of the commissioners, that is their responsibility. The commissioners are responsible for acquiring, maintaining property, real estate, etc., for the county," Kitts said. "So, their part of it is passing that ordinance to officially designate it that, and then the council's responsibility is to fund it if they're inclined to support the decision about the ordinance."

Kitts said the land the park sits on is owned by the county and is legally titled Cass County Infirmary. However, when the park started, a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation AIM High, which was created to produce projects for families and youth, had permission from the county to put fixtures on the land. This includes permanent structures on the land such as bleachers, poles and fences and these were owned and maintained by the not-for-profit, Kitts said.

"So, it was the situation in which it wasn't really the county's project because they didn't own the fixtures, and it wasn't really the 501c3's project because they didn't own the land," Kitts said. "And that just caused 20 years of confusion about, you know, who is in charge or who should be in charge or what the obligations should be that, you know, both helped and hindered depending on the circumstances."

Discussion surrounding making the park an official county park started around a year ago, Kitts said. In the press release, Kitts said the park is a victim of its success. He said it is too busy and the project to develop is too complicated to remain an independent organization.

Kitts said he was the one who suggested that it become a county park before it became a liability. However, he said that during the discussion, there was no one initially who had the training or experience to determine what the park's value and potential could be. Therefore, Cass County Director of Economic Development Christy Householder found Johnson Consulting, who are based out of Chicago, to help them with planning, the press release said.

"And so, you know, there was an investment made right there because they came and just take a look, and that wasn't free, but they came in to take a look and just tell us, 'Is this a good idea or not right now?,'" Kitts said. "And you know, very happily, they... when we had the conversations, the language they used was, you know, 'the park has good bones, there is something to be done here, are you going to do it or not?' And those conversations about what that means, you know, indicated that this was going to be a bigger project than the 501c3 was going to be able to handle on its own."

The County Council, Kitts said, agreed to fund the park by giving it a budget for a full-time park director and an operating budget for a period of time until the park is generating enough revenue to be self-sustaining. He said this was the same model that was used to get France Park up and running.

Before being named park director, Waggoner said she served as the secretary treasurer for AIM and has been working with the group for 10 years. She said over the last few years she had acquired more involvement, so it seemed to be a natural fit to move into the position. Waggoner said she is very fortunate that she was considered for the park director position.

As park director, Waggoner oversees the daily operations of the park, which includes maintenance and repairs, schedules tournaments and meets with different organizations that want to use the park. She said as part of her position, she has gotten to meet a lot of new people, such as coaches, tournament directors, different organizations and a part-time groundskeeper they have hired. From working with these people, she said she sees their dedication to the sports.

"... and that's part of my job is working closely with coaches and directors and understanding, you know, some of their expectations when they, you know, come to the park," Waggoner said. "We want this to be a park that they want to continue coming to, that they want to continue using... and that's, you know, that's part of my job is making sure that we are meeting those needs, so that this is a park that becomes a benefit for sports and it becomes a benefit for our community. We bring in, on a... three day tournament, we have 900+ people possibly coming in and that's bringing, you know, business to our community. And that... just shows the dedication of everybody from directors to coaches to family members and, you know, team players. So, it's very exciting when this happens."

According to the press release, Waggoner said that the 501c3's funds will be depleted by the end of the current season, and at that point, the 501c3 will be dissolved and the fixtures remaining on the land will become county property as part of the park. Lights, a playground, expanded facilities for restrooms and concessions and the possibility of soccer fields are being discussed, Waggoner said in the press release.

Kitts said the park is an extraordinary opportunity for the county to do something for the county. He said the park can be very valuable to the county, and he has encouraged people to invest and accept the park to embrace the opportunity to make more of it. Waggoner said she thinks the park is great and she is very excited that they have the support and backing of the County Commissioners and Council.

"The potential there is being explored and... there is so much potential there," Waggoner said. "So, [I]... feel very fortunate that I'm part of this on this level, ground floor kind of as development, you know, if it moves forward into new development. I'm very excited to see the direction that that would go."