Defining the Path for Benson Park Going Forward

August 11, 2017

 

Visitors in front of the restored Gorilla House.

Visitors in front of the restored Gorilla House.

by Sue Krzeminski

Many local residents who traverse the trails of Benson Park fondly recall its former identity as Benson’s Wild Animal Farm when the roar of the lions was often an early wake-up call.  Others may simply know of it today as a peaceful and historic venue that welcomes visitors to enjoy its beauty, whether they are hiking, bird watching, cycling or simply walking.

Since the town purchased the acreage in 2001 from the state, the park has been transformed thanks to the efforts of the Hudson Board of Selectmen, Benson Park Committee, Friends of Benson Park and, ultimately, through the hands of countless community volunteers who have nurtured the park’s growth from a wild, overgrown parcel to a well-groomed passive recreation area enjoyed by so many.  Most of the elements of the original nearly $6 million master plan created by the 10-member Benson committee in 2002 have been completed, and so now the board of selectmen has asked this volunteer group to develop a new one that adequately addresses the needs of today.  Dave Morin currently serves as the board of selectmen’s liaison to the Benson committee.  He hopes that the new master plan will be presented to the selectmen this spring.  Like the previous master plan, it will include cost estimates for specific projects being slated at the park.

“Benson Park is a very good thing for our town,” he explained.  “For so many years the people of Hudson have generously supported the efforts at the park.  They have done this by approving warrant articles and by physically being there for clean-up efforts and taking part in Friends of Benson’s fundraisers.  They have continually answered the call to help.  Now we want to have a very specific plan of what’s going to happen going forward at Benson’s, including details and dollar figures.  That way everyone knows exactly what’s happening.”

At a BOS meeting a few weeks ago, Selectman Marilyn McGrath made a statement that $1.4 million in taxpayer dollars had been invested in Benson Park over the years.  At the selectman’s request, Hudson Finance Director Kathy Carpentier prepared a cost history from fiscal year 2002 to 2017.  This spreadsheet, dated Aug. 2, did not include projects completed by donations, such as the 9/11 project, or shared equipment or material costs.  According to the spreadsheet, the funds spent at Benson Park break down this way:

Impact fees – Shepherds Hill/Bensons                             $108,119.16

Development of Benson Property                                                $535,951.39

Benson Park Committee                                                            $2,665.41

Benson Park Operations                                                            $225,257.45

Benson Maintenance Labor                                           $5,314.67

Benson Park Maintenance Labor                                                $125,698.51

Benson Park Projects/Construction Labor                         $66,613.56

Benson Landfill Cleanup/Labor                                      $4,257.40

         (Tax and pension on labor above)                          $36,864.95

Impact Fees – Recreation Fees (play structure)                $99,258.33

Train Depot                                                                 $116,385.56

Paving of Benson Park parking lot                                              $85,000.00

Total Costs                                                                  $1,411,386.39

When the town purchased the 168 acres from the New Hampshire Department of Transportation in 2001, a stipulation of the purchase agreement was the maintenance of four historic buildings on the property:  the office building, the train station, the Haselton barn and the gorilla house.  Additionally, the state mandated that the town use the land for passive recreation activities and not for sports teams and other intrusive purposes; all while maintaining 40 acres of wetlands.  To date, the board of selectmen and both Benson committees have worked diligently to fulfill their end of the agreement.  Under the original master plan, the Benson committee set as a top priority the stabilization and clean up of the six buildings on the property.

The four historic buildings have been repaired and updated as follows.

1-The Train Station was recently put onto a permanent foundation under the supervision of the Hudson Historical Society.  A beautiful deck was added that surrounds the foundation, and the station’s windows were also secured.  The train station will be restored back to its original state.  Meanwhile, the Benson committee is working on grants to help with the costs of this impending restoration.  Some ideas of what the train station may be used for going forward are as classrooms or as a visitors’ station.

2-The Elephant Barn is currently being renovated and the superstructure stabilized, with the front section open to the public as a gift and snack area.  The museum section is still being developed with some 200 historic items to be displayed for visitor viewing.

3-The Office building roof has been replaced and the building’s sill (the first board on the foundation),which is rotted, is being fixed by the replacement of the beams with similar materials and supports.

4-The Haselton Barn’s cupola has been removed and its windows and door secured.  More work needs to be done at Haselton Barn as the structural stability is not clear at this point, according to Morin.   With Morin’s help, the Benson committee is investigating that situation further.

Other repairs made to date include the full restoration of the “Old Woman in the Shoe” structure and renovation of the former ticket booth into an information center by an Eagle Scout, as well as general roofing and structural repairs on all of the Benson buildings.  Another project currently in the works includes a new bridge over the alligator pond.

This spring, the highway department brought water to the park, making the addition of public bathrooms now possible.  Selectman Morin and other committee members recently met with Nashua Park and Recreation staff to discuss how they maintain and operate their public restrooms.  At this point, a rough construction estimate of $60,000 for bathrooms has been bantered about but not written down, plus operational costs need to be considered.  The original master plan from 2002 including a proposal for building bathrooms at $75,000.  Again, Morin stressed that the committee will provide specific information on every project being planned at the park, including the addition of bathrooms, as part of the new master plan.

Fundraising concerts in the amphitheater organized by the Friends of Benson Park have been successful.  Morin hopes that future concerts in the amphitheater are on the horizon for other town groups.

As most in town are aware, Benson Park provides even more than historical significance and walking trails, as it offers a popular venue for graduation, prom and wedding photos.  Yet, the number of people who benefit from the park is hard to define.  That’s why Morin is excited about the addition of a visitor counter below the Senior Center that will count each car entering the park.  This device will be installed for a one-month period to evaluate the park traffic.  “This will give us a firm idea of how many people are using the park,” he explained.  Morin and the Benson Committee have proposed an Eagle Scout project to Troop 252 that adds location makers on the trails to make it easier for first responders to locate people in an emergency.  Morin hopes this will undertaking will occur in the spring.

As a new selectman, Morin wanted to get involved with important efforts in town that were outside the realm of police, fire and highway.  As a retired fire captain, he was well-acquainted with those areas and wanted to familiarize himself with something else.  Working as the liaison to the Benson committee has shown Morin firsthand how much the volunteer committees have accomplished over the years and how the park is “definitely needed in this town.”

“The Benson committee has proven itself time and again,” Morin said.  “They have the vision.  Now they are being tasked with putting a plan together.  I’m looking forward to seeing what they being back.”