Canandaigua Canine Campus History: A Dog Park “Tail”

By Nancy E. McCarthy

Founder of Friends of Canandaigua Canine Campus

In 2012 it occurred to me that a large grassy lot my dog Dukie and I passed daily would make an excellent dog park. I began to mentally sketch it during our walks.

Today I am a self-taught dog park expert but knew nothing about them back then. Dog parks are the fastest growing urban park category nationwide according to The Trust for Public Land. As I delved into research, I learned why dog parks benefit people, their dogs and communities. A pleasurable dog park outing strengthens owner and pet bonds but also encourages human connections establishing camaraderie between pet lovers of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. When residents and neighbors feel connected, it makes the community, as a whole, a better place to live, work and play. Sufficient off-leash exercise and socialization opportunities mitigate nuisance behaviors (digging, barking). Dogs are happier, healthier and better behaved canine citizens inside and outside dog parks.

I became an accidental dog park advocate. “Accidental” is an apt descriptor because this would never have crossed my radar if not for Dukie.

My husband Brian, son Robbie and I adopted Dukie as a puppy in 2010. He was everything we expected of the Newfoundland breed:  physically beautiful, majestic and a gentle spirit. He was super friendly, loving, (eventually) obedient and goofy but unfortunately plagued with medical conditions. His well-being was a part time job.  I would have done anything for Dukie and this would include spearheading an initiative for a dog park in our Canandaigua, NY community.

Susyn Stecchi, the renowned dog park consultant who literally wrote the book on how to build a dog park, says that while two-three years had been the national norm to open a dog park, nowadays the timeframe is one to 1 ½ years.

Unfortunately, it would take six years for Canandaigua Canine Campus (a.k.a. “Dukie’s Dog Park”) to become a reality. Dukie would never enjoy it though. Our sweet fur boy died two years before the park finally opened in 2018.

But I didn’t know that at the time. Nor could I predict how long the project would take or how many setbacks and disappointments were ahead. If I had known would I have pursued this idea? I certainly wouldn’t have taken all the roadblocks so seriously or personally.

After much ground work and armed with a professional sketch created by landscape designer Karl Naegler (my neighbor and first dog park volunteer), I hosted an April 2013 public meeting to gauge community interest in a dog park. Attracting 50 enthusiastic attendees, shortly thereafter I founded the Friends of Canandaigua Canine Campus (CCC) citizens’ group. Our singular mission: “to help establish and support a membership dog park in the City of Canandaigua where dogs may safely play and exercise off-leash.” My son created a custom software program to register supporters from our website (designed by web designer Mike Burke, one of our volunteers). We used that data to communicate directly with dog owners and captured useful market research. Our ranks continued to swell, eventually to 500, furthered along with the help of a Facebook page and media coverage. Plus about half the homes in Canandaigua had dogs! My advocacy unleashed a collective desire for a dog park.

Initially I wanted to form a non-profit to buy the land, build the park and manage it. But two months after that public meeting, independent of our early efforts, city officials were informally exploring sites for a city dog park. A section of Baker Park was identified as a possible location. I quickly offered to partner with the City. Our non-profit avenue was proving too complex and costly. Using a parcel in an existing park eliminated a land purchase and shifted the project paradigm from volunteer driven to a public/private collaboration.

The new proposed concept was a city owned, maintained and managed dog park. The City would provide the land, fund the basic park build and collect annual membership fees from users toward ongoing maintenance. Our group would assist by providing in-kind professional resources and services, well-researched input into park design and operation and, if necessary, fundraise for additional amenities.

We helped staff with a business plan formally presented to City Council in fall 2013. The response was favorable, though funding the modest $35,000 price tag was a question mark. Not all councilmembers thought the City should bankroll a “park for dogs.” Of course, the park was for people with dogs and as taxpaying citizens connected to these canines, we viewed this as another recreational option, no different than sports fields or playgrounds.

The project was stalled by a small, but vocal, group of residents near Baker Park. These neighbors circulated an anti-dog park petition and companion brochure filled with completely inaccurate characterizations of the project. I was aware that dog parks could be controversial but experiencing that “not in my backyard” battle cry firsthand was devastating.

Because of the opposition, I was asked to chair a committee to consider other site options. By June 2014, we determined that Baker Park remained the only viable and most cost effective location. As neighbor opposition continued to rise, a Canandaigua couple offered to donate land for a dog park. This seemingly fell from the sky!

We wanted to leave Baker Park as an option while their offer was considered but the Council instead voted Baker Park off the table–without formally reviewing or accepting the other land offer. It was a bitter disappointment with more to come.

October 2014, now over two years in, I was no further along than when I started. I walked away from the project in frustration but was wooed back by Mayor Ellen Polimeni and Councilmember Jim Terwilliger, both staunchly behind the dog park. Together, we created another business plan for the new site which was reviewed by Council in April 2015. This standalone park was more than triple the cost of the previous iteration but the entire City Council voted in favor of a city-owned, managed and maintained dog park. The funding would need to be addressed but by then our group had $32,000 in pledges, including a $25,000 gift from an anonymous dog lover.

The victory was short lived. During a June 2015 site tour, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) informed us that the parcel was comprised of federal and state-regulated wetlands. They would not permit any land development. At that critical juncture, the dog park no longer had a viable location and the project stalled again. After issuing a public appeal for a new location I began to systematically explore undeveloped privately-owned parcels.

In November 2015, a potential parcel was identified and the owner was contacted with the help of realtor Tim Alimossy, also a Friends of CCC volunteer. The professional talent within our ranks was impressive: lead volunteers also included lawyers, veterinarians, environmental consultants, a landscape designer, website developer and graphic artists plus lots of “worker bees” who took on small and large tasks.

The land came with challenges. For one, it was partially comprised of wetlands. Several stakeholders toured the nearly 4 acre parcel (Friends volunteer and environmental consultant Colin Diehl of Diehlux was especially helpful then and throughout the project). About two acres of land could be developed without impacting wetlands–an appropriate size for a dog park. A professional park sketch created by Karl was shared with DEC representatives who deemed the site plan satisfactory.

I authored our third business plan. The off-leash park would be a completely fenced space for healthy socialized dogs and their owners to gather featuring secure access gates, separate play yards for small and large dogs, water stations, benches, parking area and a pet memorial rock garden, the centerpiece of an outdoor lobby. Ironically, the Buffalo Street dog park would be just blocks away from Baker Park.

By January 2017, the City purchased the parcel with the express purpose of building a city dog park. In May, the Council voted in favor of the membership model for Canandaigua Canine Campus. Membership was our non-negotiable caveat. Having owners register to access the park were safety and health measures that promoted responsible use.

In June 2017, I formed the CCC Dog Park Advisory Committee comprised of dedicated dog owners, some with rescue, foster and special needs experience, plus trainers, a veterinarian, kennel staffers, pet sitters and pet therapy caregivers. We examined all facets of dog park operations to compile a customized recommendations report for Canandaigua Canine Campus. In 2018, when the City began construction, they would use the report as a template, along with our sketch, forms and handouts.

The City and Town funded a portion of the build leaving my group to fundraise for the rest through direct solicitation to individuals, businesses and civic groups plus fundraisers, including an animal-themed silent art auction and raffle. We raised $56,000 overall. While still receiving occasional donations and one more fundraiser planned, I worried that we would not make our goal.

Despite a projected shortfall, the City anticipated the basic build to be completed in summer 2018. Construction delays pushed the timeline out to early fall. After years of effort, I was exhausted and ready to move on from this six year odyssey. Also, we now had two dogs and I wanted to use the dog park! My Friends’ volunteers were also frustrated and eager for the park to open.

With little exception, I had worked on this project daily. Its impact affected my husband and son, too, who patiently supported me along the way. I needed to get off the hamster wheel and get our life back!

Even though I had already given generously to the cause in time, leadership, professional services and donations, it was my husband who suggested we help close the funding shortfall with another large donation. I presented our check to the Council at an October 2018 public meeting along with a passionate admonishment to complete and open the dog park as promised.

Canandaigua Canine Campus finally had its “soft open” on November 21, 2018. Not all of the amenities were installed but the park was functional. An official ribbon cutting ceremony is planned for the spring of 2019.

Opening day was uncommonly blustery and frigid but I was determined to relish this hard won accomplishment. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of Dukie even though Vivi and Captain, our two other beautiful Newfoundlands, were by my side.

A news reporter there asked me how I felt. That was easy: Ecstatic! Proud! Frankly, relieved. But I added “I had no clue how long and difficult this project would be when I brought the concept to the community six years ago. The project consumed me, and I am very grateful to my husband Brian and son Robbie for their loving support and understanding.”

Then I enjoyed the park with our dogs.

Last Licks!

One heartwarming benefit while advocating for a dog park were the friendships formed with other animal lovers along the way. Dog parks truly do build “community.”

Laurence Karz was one of those friends. A local attorney, he attended that very first dog park meeting and was a staunch supporter. Laurence passed away unexpectedly in 2014, after the Baker Park location was voted off the table but before donated land offered to the city was formally considered. In retrospect, he was not involved in the project for very long but, to me, he typified the dedication and passion of countless volunteers who joined Friends of CCC with the singular mission to help establish and support a membership dog park.

Canandaigua Canine Campus’s Pet Memorial Rock Garden is dedicated to Laurence. It was funded by his family and made possible by lead volunteers: me, Karl Naegler and Sue and Patrick Vitek. The garden, the centerpiece of the park’s outdoor lobby, features inscribed rocks purchased by donors and large painted stones donated from the community. Rock purchases also included a tax-deductible dog park donation which raised over $4,000.

I persevered with the dog park in Laurence’s memory but also because Mayor Ellen Polimeni and Councilmember Jim Terwilliger implored me to continue. They felt the only way the project would happen was if I steered the ship. They backed up their request of me with their own advocacy throughout the process. Jim said that before I began to make my presentations to the Council he was indifferent about dog parks but my passion and dogged persistence swayed him. He became “sold” and wanted to do whatever he could to make it happen for the community. And he did.  Ellen and Jim were cheerleaders both privately and publicly and I am very grateful.

I’d like to also thank these other exceptional supporters who gave outstanding time and/or treasure to the cause: my husband Brian McCarthy, our son Robbie McCarthy, Michael Burke, Colin Diehl, Karl Naegler, Dr. Steve Smith, Sue and Patrick Vitek, all Friends of Canandaigua Canine Campus volunteers—especially those serving on the Going to the Dogs Fundraiser Committee and Dog Park Advisory Committee plus Tim Alimossy, David & Brooke Baker, Dennis Brewer, David Brogan and Lesley Shakespeare Brogan, Jeffrey Ethan & Stephanie Bull, Denise Chaapel, Margaret Cooper, Marty & Cathy Crosby, Drs. John & Kim D’Amore, Byron Delavan, Marci Diehl, Terry Dunn, Luke Faulds, Doug Finch, David Forrest, Dick Gates, Joan Geise, Michael & Claudia Gooch, John Goodwin, Sam Hall, Barbara Hamlin, Julie Harris, Beth Howard, Anne & Laurence Karz, Robert & Myrna Karz, Barb Lipari, Steve Martin, Debbie McWilliams, Brian & Kelly Meath, Ann Molloy, Bob & Maura Moore, Mike Murphy, Jenn Naracong, Alex Payne, Deanna Pereira, Stephani & Todd Reardon, Mary Reynolds, Karen Sorce, Jim Sprague, Guy & Sue Turchetti, Marty Jones Wallace, Kathleen Welch, Peggy Wemett and Dave Whitcomb.

Last, but really first, I thank my beloved Dukie who was truly the Best Dog Ever.

My Dukie, the face that launched a dog park…

Me and Dukie, a love affair! His adopted sister Vivi joined the family in 2014.

Captain and Vivi, my hearts! Dukie passed away February 2016 and we adopted Captain in October 2016. We rescued Captain and then he rescued us …

Captain and Vivi will enjoy the dog park!

Nancy McCarthy with son Robbie (L) and husband Brian (R). The entire family supported the dog park!

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