Santa Maria Takes Steps Toward a Healthier Community

The City of Santa Maria won an Award for Excellence in the Health and Wellness Programs category of the 2007 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit

Cheers burst from the bleachers at the crack of the bat. Teammates slap high fives at the basketball court. Words of shared encouragement inspire friends puffing along the walking path and exercise stations.

It’s all in a day’s play for the numerous kids, families and seniors who make healthy use of Santa Maria’s new Rotary Centennial Park and Robin Ventura Field.

It took a lot of innovation and partnerships to build the newest park loaded with recreational and wellness amenities in this fast-growing community on California’s central coast.

The park was conceived as a way to celebrate both the 100-year anniversaries of the city’s incorporation and the founding of Rotary International in 1905. It also presents a rare opportunity to create more programs and a new venue to promote healthier activities and lifestyles for both youth and seniors alike — for good reason.

Addressing the Lack of Fitness

In 2001, the city’s Recreation and Parks Department created a Leisure Action Plan based on the input received through a community-wide survey and focus group meetings. When it was recently updated, staff found that one in every three residents in Santa Maria were 19 years of age or younger and many of them were overweight; 24.2 percent of 5th, 7th and 9th graders were overweight; none of the 9th graders tested in the local schools met all of the national fitness standards; and only 42.9 percent of 9th graders met five of the six fitness standards.

These dismal results prompted the city to take action and create programs that provide children with safe places such as parks, gymnasiums and ball fields to be active before, during and after school. At the other end of the age spectrum, more retirees were relocating to Santa Maria because of its ideal year-round climate and best regional value for homebuyers. Many of them were Baby Boomers, who have come to expect “amenity-rich” parks with exercise and fitness stations.

The challenge was finding funding to pay for a park with these types of activities, given the fact that the city had limited funding for park construction and development.

Leveraging Partnerships and Funding

A new large residential development was proposed in the southeast portion of the city. When approached with this prime infill project, the city was successful in negotiating with the developer the acquisition of a 16-acre site to be dedicated for open space and public facility use. One acre was to be dedicated as the building site for an additional fire station, and the remaining property designed for park land.

After city staff identified the types of health and wellness amenities that were desirable and needed in this location and then estimated initial construction costs, it became apparent that the city didn’t have sufficient funds to develop and construct the park. So staff took it upon themselves to approach numerous community stake holders about the possibility of partnering to leverage enough funding to finance construction of this new park.

From these discussions, a collaborative partnership was developed between the city and the three local Rotary Clubs. They were seeking a meeting place for Rotary functions, service projects, Interact Club projects and many other community-oriented family uses, including the arts, youth activities, athletics, and activities for families and senior citizens.

Rotary International challenged its clubs to create unique projects in conjunction with its centennial. The park project easily met Rotary International’s project criteria. An idea was hatched to create a partnership between the City of Santa Maria and Rotary International to commemorate their mutual 100-year anniversaries together.

Rotary eventually agreed to pursue funding from various club sources, through Rotary International, and through joint fundraising projects as well as provide their own in-kind services to bring this project to fruition.

The fundraising campaign brought in more than $425,000 in cash and in-kind donations: one developer contributed $30,000 for construction of a bandstand/gazebo; another contractor gave $40,000 for the children’s play area equipment; another paid for the covered barbecue area, pits and concrete benches; and even Wal-Mart helped out by raising money to build a regulation basketball court.

Rotary International and the Rotary Clubs underwrote a 10-station exercise trail system, a park clock, flagpoles, a drinking fountain and picnic tables, as well as numerous benches and tables throughout the park. A special toddlers’ lot was built in memory of a local Rotarian, and in honor of Rotary’s first Community Service project in Chicago, a restroom was constructed on the site, built almost entirely with donated time and materials.

Getting the Community Walking

Children and teens from neighborhoods both near and far make constant use of the tot lot, play apparatus, basketball court and baseball field, and adults and seniors are often seen using the exercise stations around the park’s perimeter.

The new park has also become a popular site for Community Walks — cosponsored by the city, a local hospital and the Santa Barbara Regional Health Authority. The walks began in January 2006 with the local Marian Medical Center serving as a primary cosponsor of the events along with the Recreation and Parks Department. Marian continues to cosponsor walks by providing staff support, information, handouts, pedometers and a variety of prizes and incentives to encourage participants to get out and walk long after their initial participation. Dozens of local residents turn out for these walks, and future plans call for a monthly series of themed walks with additional theme related cosponsors.

In May 2006, Rotary Centennial Park was dedicated and opened to the public, and in March 2007, Robin Ventura Baseball Field was too. The 175 Rotarians in the three local Rotary Clubs continue to raise funds for an adjoining five-acre portion of the site, part of which has been identified for a future “Huckleberry Finn” fishing pond stocked with fish. Consistent with the collaborative approach that brought this park to fruition, the upkeep and tidiness of the park has also been ad dressed by a local Rotary Interact Club caring for the park through the city’s Adopt-a-Park program.

Contact: Mark van de Kamp, management analyst II, City Manager’s Office; phone: (805) 925-0951, ext. 372; e-mail:

This article appears in the January 2008 issue of Western City
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