Thorny Decision

Stepping up is never easy, but we did it

By Cecily Hastings
September 2021

More than two years ago, the city of Sacramento embarked on a major construction project at McKinley Park—an underground water vault to pull excess water from storm drains during heavy rains. The goal was to prevent the recurrence of floods in the neighborhood.

This month the city moves to the final step—renovation of the eastern part of the park between the McKinley Rose Garden and tennis courts. Renovations include new turf, trees and picnic areas. A heater for Clunie Pool will create a year-round aquatic center.

I lived across the street for about 90 percent of the construction. It was exhausting. The nonprofit Friends of East Sacramento—founded by Lisa Schmidt and me in 2010—manages the Clunie Community Center and rose garden, adjacent to the vault construction. The impacts on the center and garden were significant.

After the recession, the Clunie Community Center and McKinley Rose Garden were in dire straits. The city was completing an upgrade to the garden’s irrigation system and walkways. Sadly, the budget didn’t include funds to replace 600 rose bushes that perished due to lack of care and water. The garden is home to 1,200 bushes—largest in the region.

The mission of Friends of East Sacramento was to raise funds for improvement projects in the neighborhood and McKinley Park. With no options but closure, the city asked our nonprofit to manage the garden and restoration. The city also asked us to run Clunie Community Center, which needed restoration.

At the time, Lisa and I were tired of divisive neighborhood disputes and disagreements. There were many, including the Mercy General Hospital expansion. We thought the McKinley Park project might be a way to pull the neighborhood together around something positive.

We had to raise a lot of money to bring the center and garden into shape and make them suitable to lease out and generate revenue to support the nonprofit. The first step was the rose garden. We raised $150,000 from a private donor and completed the restoration.

We planted eight large perennial flowerbeds and attractive English-style boxwood hedges. We funded the installation of a wrought iron pergola and bench, and renovated 26 park benches. We assumed responsibility for the expense and care within the garden—including the grass, hedges, flowers and boxwoods.

The roses were another story. We developed a volunteer training program that brings hundreds of people a year to deadhead, prune and fertilize the roses. While the project has been rewarding, it hasn’t been easy. Seeing the garden in glorious shape is very satisfying. Visits by guests have risen dramatically.

The community center was a different animal. We completed a cosmetic renovation while working around rental bookings. We raised another $125,000 mostly from small business donors. We were blessed with an early tenant—a church rented the facility every Sunday.

Over the first few years, bookings increased. I donated advertising in Inside Sacramento, which helped market the garden and rental facilities.

Almost a decade into our lease, the project has not been without criticism. When we renovated the public restrooms next to the McKinley library, a group called East Sac Preservation protested our restroom policy. The protest failed.

When the city’s plans for the water vault were introduced, a neighborhood group sued the city to stop construction. The suit failed. Not satisfied by the defeat in court, a few neighbors on H Street hung banners warning that the water vault would destroy McKinley Park. The banners put fear into our rental prospects.

The city allows banners on a home for up to six months if the banner is less than 10 square feet. A couple of ragged banners, still present on an H Street property owned by Maria Kelly, have been up more 30 months. Our complaints go unanswered.

A year ago, at the height of the pandemic, the city asked us to assume management of the Shepard Garden and Arts Center, next to McKinley Park. Another nonprofit tried but was unable to operate it. We cautiously agreed. Sure enough, several neighbors tried to stop us. They failed.

Recently, a hurtful message was posted on Facebook by a landscaper who promotes his business with signs in local yards. His beef was about excessive nut grass in the McKinley Rose Garden. Absent was any offer to help fix the problem.

When we inherited the rose garden, nut grass overran the rose bushes. We raised and spent more than $50,000 to eradicate it until about two years ago, when it returned. We’ve treated it with chemicals, digging and blocking—ideas provided by professionals. Eventually, we decided we lack the time and energy to be obsessed by it.

Lisa and I run the garden and community center as volunteers. We’ve never taken any pay. Many neighbors and visitors appreciate the effort, but after almost a decade, people tend to forget and take things for granted.

We’re not above criticism, but it would be helpful if people quit complaining and stepped up to help.

Next fall, our agreement expires on the community center and rose garden. We need to decide whether to renew our lease or return the properties back to the city. This past year was stressful. Many volunteers were understandably afraid to work. Our garden manager Nisa Hayden had to recruit and train new folks to help.

The lease renewal will be a tough decision. We’ve put a lot into these beautiful, historic places. But the city has never come close to restoring the number of park workers on the job before the recession, despite passage of Measure U to fund public safety and park services. We will just have to see.

Cecily Hastings can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

Rose Garden Photo Contest

Friends of East Sacramento is pleased to present the winners of this year’s McKinley Rose Garden photo contest. Winning photos are in this month’s Inside Sacramento.

The nonprofit Friends of East Sacramento developed the contest in 2013 to engage the community and share the beauty of the garden.

Photographer Aniko Kiezel serves as the judge. The photographs will be used to promote the McKinley Rose Garden for wedding rentals, which support care of the garden.

This year’s first-place winner is Anne Sandler, who will receive a 20-by-30-inch canvas wall hanging with an image of her choice, donated by Mike’s Camera.

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