The City of Turlock is moving forward with a donation from Matt Swanson to construct a dog park in Turlock's Centennial Park, rejecting a larger proposed donation from two local veterinarians.
On Nov. 13, the Turlock Parks, Recreation and Community Commission will consider renaming Centennial Park to Swanson Centennial Park, accepting a $35,000 donation from the Swanson Family and Pet Extreme to construct a dog park there.
Swanson, the owner of local pet store Pet Extreme, is a member of one of Turlock's most successful families. The Swansons' lineage traces back generations in Turlock, with extensive land holdings and numerous successful businesses which employ over 100 people.
The advisory to move forward with Swanson's donation came during a closed-door meeting held Sept. 9, attended by City Councilman Steven Nascimento, Mayor John Lazar, City Manager Roy Wasden, Parks, Recreation, and Community Programs Commission Chairman Barney Gordon, Parks Commissioner Brent Bohlender, and Parks Manager Allison Van Guilder.
“We had a meeting (Sept. 9) to discuss the issue,” Nascimento said. “Just to figure out what was going on. We suggested several options, but it is ultimately up to the (Parks, Recreation, and Community Programs) Commission to decide how to move forward.”
Nascimento sat on a Parks Commission sub-committee to find a donor for the proposed dog park before he was elected to the Turlock City Council in November, 2012.
The meeting was not intended to mandate what action the Parks, Recreation, and Community Programs Commission should take when it meets Nov. 13, Nascimento said, but to help a controversial issue move forward.
“We just tried to offer up alternatives,” Nascimento said. “We would prefer that the commission come up with a compromise, but knowing that the final decision will ultimately come to council we felt it was prudent to have the meeting.”
City staff said, at the time, that Swanson would be amenable to simply having the dog park named in his honor, rather than renaming Centennial Park as he had previously requested. But the final compromise will still require the renaming of Centennial Park, to Swanson Centennial Park.
The recommendation means Turlock will forgo donations from two local veterinarians: Rob Santos and Irene Bohlender Collins. Collins had proposed to donate $40,000, or $5,000 more than Swanson.
“Only in Turlock do we have these problems,” Nascimento said. “Too many good people (are) willing to fund city projects.”
Dog Park Donation Rejections Date Back to Park's Inception
The effort to build a dog park in Centennial Park dates back to July 12, 2011. Since then, the Parks Commission has been in search of a donor to cover the park's approximately $40,000 cost.
But during that time frame, the City of Turlock has rejected, either formally or informally, hefty donations from three potential donors.
Most recently, the Turlock Parks, Recreation, and Community Programs Commission rejected a $35,000 donation from Swanson during an Aug. 14 meeting. That donation was contingent upon renaming Centennial Park as “Swanson Park,” in honor of one of Turlock's most successful families.
Though commissioners said at the time that they appreciated the offer, a 3-2 majority opposed the renaming. Centennial Park was named in November 2007 in recognition of the city's centennial celebration. The park contains 100 trees, referencing the centennial, and a plaque with the names of those who donated trees at the base of the city’s “Centennial Tree.”
“They definitely appreciated the offer, but they couldn't get past changing the name of a landmark park,” Turlock Parks, Recreation & Facilities Department Superintendent Erik Schulze said at the time.
Parties Disagree On Santos Donation Rejection
But the search for a donor dates back to at least August 2011 when Santos, owner of Monte Vista Small Animal Hospital, offered donate as much as $20,000 to build a Centennial Park dog park. He also offered to donate $8,000 in amenities to the park, such as dog tunnels and seesaws, road signage directing travelers to the park, and a sign estimated at $5,000.
Santos and Nascimento disagree about why that donation fell through.
Both agree that, at that time, Santos requested that a sign bearing the name of Monte Vista Small Animal Hospital be erected at the Centennial Park site. He did not ask for the park to be renamed.
But Turlock city staff and Parks Commissioners were unsure if the donation, for roughly 50 percent of the park's cost, warranted the exposure. The city backed away from Santos' donation to produce a list of fundraising tiers, and to determine the marketing exposure associated with those tiers. That list was never completed, and Santos was never contacted again about the donation, he says.
"Nascimento and (Gordon) were supposed to contact me after fundraising tiers were released to the public so that sign recognition opportunities would be fairly announced," Santos said. "They rejected my donation; we contacted them several times but they never contacted me again. We wanted to make this a destination for the community and visitors of Turlock."
Santos also proposed to raise any additional needed funds through a nonprofit.
According to Nascimento, the Parks Commission decided against a funding tier strategy, instead deciding to seek out a donor for the dog park's total cost. Nascimento was personally in favor of the fundrasing tier strategy, initially.
“We started the process (to create fundraising tiers), but could not agree that it was the right way to go,” Nascimento said.
Nascimento said the donation ultimately fell through when Santos and his marketing representative David “D.J.” Fransen did not respond to an e-mail request to meet and discuss the issue further. Fransen is also the owner and publisher of TurlockCityNews.com.
“Gordon and I offered to set up a meeting with (Fransen and Santos) to discuss the issue further and never heard back,” Nascimento said.
Fransen says that meeting requests were responded to, but that Gordon said the city was still developing fundraising tiers.
Fransen also said that Nascimento met with Santos at his home on July 31, 2012, to discuss Nascimento's Turlock City Council campaign. When the dog park came up in conversation at that time, Nascimento said the city was still working on fundraising tiers, Fransen said.
City staff then contacted Swanson in September or October of 2012, in search of a donation. Swanson's proposed donation was then worked out in one-on-one discussions with city staff, Nascimento said, after Nascimento left the Parks Commission.
Nascimento told Fransen in February that the city was talking with an interested donor, Fransen said. Fransen asked if anyone had contacted Santos, the first potential donor, but was not answered. Fransen learned later that night that the city was in talks with Swanson.
Dr. Irene's Offer Rejected, Too
Yet another potential donor came to light following the Parks Commission's decision to reject Swanson's offer: Collins, who ran Turlock's Crane St. Veterinary Center from 1977 to 1995. She has since returned to practice with Dr. Irene's Mobile Vet, and still practices at age 91.
Santos bought his first practice, the former Crane St. Veterinary Center and current Community Veterinary Clinic, from Collins. Collins is the mother of Bohlender, the aforementioned Parks Commissioner who attended the Sept. 9 meeting.
Collins and Santos have been working together to create a private dog park for the past year, since Santos's donation was rejected. But when Collins heard from Bohlender that the Swanson donation was rejected, she offered to donate to the Centennial Park dog park instead.
“I found out that the city could use a bigger donation to pay for the total cost,” Collins said.
Collins proposed a $40,000 donation, $5,000 more than Swanson offered. In exchange, she asked that the dog park be named in her honor, rather than the entire park be renamed. Santos then threw his support behind Collins' effort.
“I was in full support of the dog park project since it was approved in 2011 and I am willing to donate toward the remaining funds needed to consider Dr. Irene’s donation a complete one, covering the total cost of the dog park,” Santos said. “Dr. Irene is an icon in the local veterinarian community.”
Though the city was aware of Collins' proposed, larger donation, Nascimento said that, as the Swanson donation was offered first, it only made sense to proceed in that direction. He suggested that Collins' proposed donation could be used to provide new amenities at Turlock's existing dog park, located in Sunnyview Park, and that dog park could be renamed in Dr. Irene's honor. To date, Nascimento or city staff has not spoken to Santos.
“I know Brent (Bohlender) would prefer to have the new park named after his mother, and she is undoubtedly deserving – but it’s so late in the process that I think it would be a slight to the Swanson family,” Nascimento said.