The Renovation of Rupert Square: Upgrades underway at historic square


3 years ago

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RUPERT — After a half dozen years of planning in Rupert, dirt began to fly at the Rupert Square this past July. Construction crews removed grass, old fountains, crumbling concrete and diseased trees as the city’s central park was reborn.

The Square’s rich history stretches back to a time when the community’s first well was first dug and residents lined up in wagons to pull water. Savvy businessmen took notice of the commercial opportunity and the Square was quickly dotted with tarpaper shacks placed on skids that could easily be moved to another location if Rupert’s economy soured.

In more than a century since then, the town’s central park remained a cherished gathering place, hosting annual Christmas and Fourth of July celebrations, plus plenty of other events. But over time sidewalks and concrete electrical poles started to turn back to dust, while irrigation systems and fountains misbehaved and insect infestations took over many of the trees.

Using a combination of a bond, grants and private donations the city has begun a revamp of the park, streets, sidewalks and curbing in a two-phase project that seeks to revitalize downtown Rupert.

“Rupert is the Square,” said Kelly Anthon, Rupert city administrator. “If the Square looks beautiful, Rupert looks beautiful. It is the heartbeat of the city and we have to take care of it.”

As travelers on Oneida Street turn toward the city center, they are ushered in one-way traffic around the Square. But as the front door to the community, Anthon said, the Square wasn’t showcasing the best of the city. When construction is finished in summer 2019, he hopes that will change.

Construction continues Sept. 24 on Rupert Square.

First, a plan

Alan Johnson, who lives just outside Rupert’s boundaries, served on the city’s Fourth of July committee in 2012. After spending five days on the Square, some of the members decided to urge the city to consider upgrades to the park.

The group worked with an architect to develop ideas. One of their first ideas included a children’s splash pad, which was met by a tepid response in the community before eventually being abandoned.

“I think it just wasn’t the right place for it,” Johnson said.

As city leaders examined the proposals they quickly realized that replacing the Square’s fountain would create a need to upgrade other areas of the park too.

“We realized the sidewalks on the Square were older than the fountain,” Anthon said. “Redoing just the fountain would not be enough; it would create a ripple effect.”

Doing the project right meant that city officials had to get serious about fixing the park’s wide-reaching problems. The city council first appointed a task force to create a master plan.

Johnson served on the task force, which met often to discuss and revise ideas. Charlie Creason, owner of three businesses on the Square — the Drift Inn, Henry’s at the Drift Inn restaurant and the E Street Deli — also worked on the project from the beginning.

“I’m pretty sentimental about Rupert,” Creason said. “We are third generation here and we hope to see the town exist for many more years.”

Public meetings were held to gather public opinion and the city took a survey on how residents envisioned the park.

But when the master plan was completed, Anthon said the price tag was steeper than expected: $5 million.

The original group had hoped to pay for the project through donations, but with a price tag that hefty, it became clear that the city would need to provide additional funding.

“It was too steep,” Anthon said. “I’m very conservative with taxpayer money and I’m often the wet blanket. There was just no way we could afford it or even bite off a section.”

The group went back to the drawing board and pared down ideas to cut down on costs.

Meanwhile, Anthon said, the massive flooding of 2017 had left a mess of the city’s streets. Potholes littered neighborhoods, and some streets needed to be completely rebuilt because they were domed from having so many layers of asphalt.

“Those potholes were people’s everyday reality,” he said.

In spring 2017 Rupert voters approved a $3.96 million bond to renovate the park, upgrade the senior center and fix the city’s streets, which gave the city leverage to pursue grants.

The city received a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant for the park and $100,000 was raised through donations. The city also received $900,000 in a grant to help with street repairs.

The original plan called for spending $700,000 on the first phase of park renovation, but the bid came in higher. After a couple of cost revisions, the city’s costs for the first phase were at $928,730 in early September. The bid was awarded to Twin Falls-based Starr Corporation.

Phase II, which begins in spring 2019, will cover street work, curb, gutter, sidewalk, road cuts, patching and some irrigation line work, and is estimated to cost $897,975, with $500,000 of the cost covered by the block grant.

The costs include more than $107,000 of in-kind labor and materials provided by the city. Anthon said construction cost increases were offset through money saved on grants and donations.

“Even though market conditions increased the costs, the voters will get the improvements they approved for the bond amount they approved. The grant funds and donations mean that the taxpayers will get even more bang for their buck,” Anthon said.

Renovation

Construction at the park is expected to be complete by mid-November, and the park plans to host its annual Christmas celebration Nov. 23.

The main draw will be a civic plaza with a fountain at the park’s center, and a second fountain will be built on the northwest corner of the Square commemorating the Minidoka Dam and irrigation system.

“The community was built around agriculture,” Anthon said. “That’s where the whole community started. Without water, there would be no Rupert.”

The second fountain will look like a dam, and its water will drain into the ground. On the southwest corner, a memorial gate will honor Mini-Cassia veterans, and the gazebo will be refurbished with public restrooms added in a building across the street.

Building restrooms in the park was at the top of the city’s priorities, but there were no existing sewer lines in the Square. Instead, the city purchased the smallest building on the Square, next to The Book Store, for $110,000. At a cheaper cost than running sewer lines through the square, the renovated building will include 12 restrooms and is expected to be completed in July 2019.

Diagonal sidewalks will replicate earlier walks that allowed people leaving the train station to have a clear view through the park to the county courthouse.

Despite periodic improvements through the years, not much of the park was functioning the way it should have, Anthon said. Many of the improvements are occurring underground as old water and electrical lines are replaced — not glamorous, Anthon said, but essential.

During the second phase of construction, the perimeter sidewalks —which were not meeting the Americans with Disability Act standards — will be replaced, along with electrical upgrades.

The second phase of construction, which will mark the completion of renovations, is expected to be finished by the end of June 2019.

Though the park will be closed periodically during construction, business access around the Square will remain open.

“The Square has to represent our optimism for the future and our commitment to small business,” Anthon said.

Sensitive to history

The park is part of the city’s historic district, so planners were sensitive to preserving its history.

“When you touch something like that, which means so much to many people, you have to be sensitive,” Johnson said.

Trees have played an important role in the park’s history, starting with the 800 Carolina poplars that were planted in double rows in and around the park in the early 1900s. Several decades later, the fast-growing trees became brittle and were replaced by hardwood trees.

On closer inspection, officials found that some of the new trees were full of bark beetles and other diseases, and the pine trees with shallow roots were unstable.

Nine trees have been removed so far, but if damage is found on others they will be removed too, said city clerk Bayley Fuller. The city plans to replant at least 12 trees.

“We only removed the trees that we had to,” Anthon said. “The one thing that kept me up at night was removing trees from the Square.”

The lost trees included a memorial tree with about 20 tributes, but another tree will planted in its place.

“Some people were not wild about taking out the trees,” Johnson said. “But I think after they see the overall picture on the other side people will see that the changes were necessary.”

Revamping the park also meant relocating some of the memorials that accumulated over the years, Anthon said.

“A few years ago the city realized it didn’t have a good policy on memorials,” Anthon said.

The city placed a temporary restriction on new memorials until the master plan was developed. A memorial rose garden was moved to the city-owned building that houses the Minidoka County Senior Center and other memorials were given new homes.

“The task force wanted to keep the park’s history but update it and make it an inviting place,” said Tammy Jones, a city councilwoman and member of the task force.

A future vision

Jones would like to see the city work in concert with the Wilson Theater to bring in more events. As part of the changes, Anthon said the city will work to keep events regularly scheduled at the park.

Jones and Anthon both envision the project luring more business to the city’s center.

“I see empty buildings around the Square being useful again,” Johnson said. “Rupert is seeing growth and we have to do things to make sure people want to come here.”

Creason said people have to find ways to reinvent downtown areas to keep them vital.

“We’re never going to compete with the big plazas or Amazon, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a thriving downtown,” he said.

City officials have also purchased a resin skating rink that will be behind the history kiosk near the Wilson Theater on Fremont Street, for example. This year the rink will be put up at Neptune Park until its permanent home is prepared.

The 60-foot by 40-foot skating rink will bring a lot of people to the city, Anthon said. Part of its appeal is that it can be set up for use on the Fourth of July.

A city employee will operate the rink, and the city council will set entrance fees at a later date. Costs are expected to be around $5 for patrons, and include skate rental.

Anthon began discussing a city skating rink on his first day on the job six years ago.

“When we penciled it out it was tax neutral,” he said of the cost for taxpayers.

The rink cost just shy of $50,000 and he envisions it bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue to the city over the next 20 years.

“I really commend the city council and the residents for exploring the possibility of the park project and for willing to be a part of it,” Johnson said. “It’s been a long road and it took a lot of patience and commitment from many people to make it happen.”