Treetop Course Owner Concedes to Consider Other Spots in Greensfelder Park, Other County Parks
This has been a busy couple of days for GoApe! owner Chris Swallow, who is in town from Maryland to meet with St. Louis media and park users. Tuesday's St. Louis County Council meeting also sent the proposed treetop course in a different direction.
The motto of the treetop adventure course company whose owners sought to build a new obstacle course in Greensfelder Park in Wildwood is "live life adventurously." Maryland-based GoApe! owner Chris Swallow is in St. Louis this week to personally explain the company's newest planned adventure, which targeted a 7- to 10-acre spot in this more remote West St. Louis County Park, and to share the community benefits GoApe! delivers in the other cities in which they do business.
Swallow's personal exploration of the matter—combined with a petition from Greensfelder Park users at Tuesday's St. Louis County Council meeting—prompted him to now seek alternative locations for the park. The online petition currently shows 574 signatures toward a goal of 600.
Eureka-Wildwood Patch met with Swallow in Wildwood on Monday. He seemed sincerely interested in better understanding the issues that critics and local residents have raised about the exact location proposed within Greensfelder Park at a popular confluence of trails, buildings, camping spots and parking areas frequently used by equestrians, hikers and bicyclists.
"Greensfelder is still the preferred location," Swallow told Patch Wednesday morning. "But we want to be a good partner with all the park's users, and so are open to establishing in other parts of Greensfelder, or another county park."
"Even though our history of working alongside equestrians and horses in three other courses over the past five years indicates no concerns, we seek to have great relationships in the communities in which we exist," he said.
If that means choosing a different spot farther away from horses, it was a concession Swallow said he offered before Tuesday's St. Louis County Council meeting. He said the original, proposed location was mutually recommended by the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation staff.
"The needed infrastructure was there (Greensfelder), the typography was good, and there were other, existing uses in place. Our preference is not to be a stand-alone destination," he said.
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Swallow said Monday he is in town to address the misconceptions about the GoApe! program. "We are a positive attribute of parks in our prior locations, being active community and park partners."
Swallow said it was never their intention to come into St. Louis or Greensfelder Park without fostering mutually beneficial activities. He points toward benefits GoApe! provides, such as:
- helping to manage parks by sponsoring cleanup days
- giving free tickets to underserved people
- offering deliberately inclusive activities for people with disabilities
- catering to Boy and Girl Scouts Troops
Swallow said hosting fundraisers with the Friends of Parks groups so that some money stays at the parks in which they operate is a standard practice for them. "These are not a part of our contracts with parks' departments. We do it because it's the right thing to do."
Regarding concerns about increased traffic to Greensfelder, Swallow said they told St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department staff they were willing to space out the bookings for the course, as a trial. He said 100 percent of admissions are booked ahead of time, so it is something that can be managed and controlled.
"There are not going to be tons of people coming all at once. The busiest day may have 200 people at most, so that might be three to four car arrivals per hour," he said.
Swallow said he and GoApe! representatives reached out to St. Louis County Park staffers after their success in establishing a treetop course in Indianapolis. "We thought St. Louis also would be a good fit for the type of new recreational activity we initiate. Greensfelder Park was chosen jointly by GoApe! and county parks staffers because of the typography," he said.
He said while the course only targeted 10 acres out of Greensfelder's 1,734 acres, they also were cognizant of the nature preserve areas there.
Swallow said the three other GoApe! treetop courses and operations that are near equestrian activity are actually closer to horses than what was envisioned at Greensfelder. "One of the trails goes around the equestrian course, and the equestrians there prefer to go underneath it, for example. In the prior parks, the areas are open to everybody and everyone uses them," he said.
Swallow said the proposed Greensfelder plan had more of a buffer.
He told Patch Monday he was amenable to changing locations, and willing to offer other concession, such as piloting a decreased appointment size to see what actual impacts are.
Regarding concerns about potential noise generated from course participants, he said park rangers in Maryland said they haven’t noticed noise. "One resident who lives near the course told me that he wouldn’t know we were in the park, based only on noise," said Swallow.
"We seek to be a discrete addition to parks."
Swallow confirmed that St. Louis parks were part of the company's Midwest expansion plans. But, he maintains their treetop courses are about more than just revenue generation.
"In other courses, we see three generations of families coming out together to enjoy it as a group. The courses also encompass about 95 percent of handicap challenges," said Swallow.
"Parents often are in tears, because sometimes it's the first time that children with autism have tried to do something physical. Treetop courses are a powerful tool to get people outdoors."
Other parks managers and users are starting to recognize that the courses are one of the few activities that get today's children away from iPads and cell phones, he said.
Swallow said they also work with nonprofit groups, such as Wounded Warriors, to offer free admission to soldiers and their families.
"We are something new. We realize that. We are not a zipline or canopy tour, which take larger areas and some people confuse with us. Imaginations can run a little wild but we hope people realize we seek to be a good community partner," he said.
Swallow said a manager would be sent from one of their prior locations, but 12 to 15 local people would be employed.
He said an initial proposal was provided to the county parks department, but his understanding is that more formal language needed to be authorized by county council members regarding entering a lease agreement.
GoApe! collectively has operated for 11 years in 31 locations. He said with more than 3 million participants on their courses over time, there has not been a single litigation.
While Swallow said he understands the concerns of critics, he also has received emails from local residents in favor of the treetop course. "These are normal, legitimate concerns, and we're happy to address them."
"Other facets that we bring can’t be quantified in dollars. We just ask people to please keep an open mind until we’re operational," said Swallow.
YOUR TURN: Do you consider it good news that a different location within Greensfelder Park, or that a different St. Louis County Park, is being considered for this proposed treetop adventure course?