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Lakeside park for everybody

Onondaga Lake Park's home to activities as diverse as the people who enjoy them

Sunday, October 17, 2004

By BoNhia Lee Staff writer
Syracuse Post-Standard

The trees in Onondaga Lake Park are losing their leaves and a stiff breeze off the lake signals the festival and outdoor activity season is slowing down.

But even during the fall and winter seasons the park still draws residents. By Thanksgiving, thousands of visitors will start passing through the park for an extravagant holiday light show. Advertisement

And soon after, cross-country skiers will strap on their gear and take to trails frequented in good weather by runners, walkers, in-line skaters and bikers.

In Onondaga County, it is the people's park. It offers local residents a central place for scores of activities or just plain recreation much the way Central Park does for New York City dwellers.

The Onondaga County Parks Department estimates 1.4 million people visit Onondaga Lake Park annually. Central Park draws 25 million visitors a year.

"What's interesting about the way Central Park was created and evolved is very similar to the way Onondaga Lake Park evolved," said Robert Geraci, Onondaga County Parks commissioner. "The single most important criteria for the relevancy is that it belongs to everybody."

The 1,040-acre park is open every day and has popular daily attractions - from the five miles of recreational trails to the picnic areas in its Willow Bay and Long Branch Park sections to a skate park and Wegmans Boundless Playground.

Most weekends from May to October, there is at least one organized event that attracts hundreds to thousands of visitors.

This year, the park accommodated 32 benefit walks and runs, four car shows and eight special events, including Lights on the Lake, Fishing for Dollars and a handful of cultural fests.

More than 6,000 people participated in the JP Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge in August. The American Heart Walk/Run attracted more than 3,500 participants in April.

There were another half dozen races and walks throughout the year to raise money and awareness for other health-related organizations such as those for juvenile diabetes, cancer and kidney research, women's health and Down syndrome.

The Down Syndrome Buddy Walk held its event at the park in October for the sixth year. About 2,000 people participated in this year's two-mile walk.

"We like (the park) because it's large enough to accommodate the 2,000 some people that come to our walk. . . . It's centrally located," said organizer Cheri Ianotti.

The Long Branch Park area, at the north end of the park, attracts festivals. The one-day Bavarianfest draws 2,000 people each year. More than 3,000 people attended the Scottish Games and Festival this summer. Long Branch hosted smaller peace and pagan festivals in recent weeks. Treasure hunters comb through hundreds of booths at the annual Great American Antiquefest held at the park every year. Car enthusiasts also gather there to view antique cars during three different car shows. And anglers compete every year to catch fish tagged with prizes.

Local schools use the park for sports events such as rowing and cross country running. Saturday runners from about 10 high schools visited the park to participate in the Liverpool High School Cross Country Invitational.

"You have this incredible menu of recreational activities from the very passive to activities set up by us," Geraci said. "On any given day, you know what you're looking at is the wide spectrum of people who live in this community, which to me is what defines Central Park."

The Wegmans playground, created to accommodate handicapped children, is a popular spot for Wendy Allsop, of Jamesville, and Linda Hickey, of Liverpool, who pushed their children on the swings Wednesday evening.

"I think this is the park to be," Allsop said. "There is no other park to go with the kids."

Gabriele Finizio, of Liverpool, and John Mauro, of Syracuse, squeezed in a round of bocce ball Wednesday before the sun set. The new bocce courts next to the visitors center attract many people during the summer months, the two men said.

"We do it just to pass time," Finizio said.

M. Elen Deming notices the diversity of park users when she in-line skates at the park every week. Deming is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

"It is nicely diverse, like Central Park," Deming said.

She notices children on bicycles, children learning how to ride. She also sees teenagers, young professionals and the elderly using the park at different times during the day.

Deming believes the continuity of the park is an attractive feature. It allows people to feel a sense of destination as the park connects from one end to the other, she said.

But most importantly, the park offers residents a view of the city's skyline.

"All great cities in North America have great park systems and one of the values of them is because it provides a vantage point from which to view the city as an organism. And it makes you feel proud," Deming said.

© 2004 The Post-Standard.

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