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Riverside Park offers peace amid busy city

By BY GABE SEMENZA - GSEMENZA@VICAD.COM
Sept. 1, 2011 at 4:01 a.m.

Frankie Graham throws a frisbee during a game of disc golf with friends at Riverside Park on Friday, June 24, 2011.

County population: 86,755

County seat: Victoria

Major city or cities: Victoria

History of the county's name: Named in 1836 after Guadalupe Victoria, the first President of Mexico.

Square miles: 889

Main highways: U.S. Highways 59, 77 and 87.

County's biggest employer: Victoria Independent School District with 2,178 employees.

Doug Cochran's office in Riverside Park offers expansive views to the public golf course, rose garden and scenic roadway.

This day, however, the Victoria parks and recreation director drove slowly toward Grover's Bend, a picturesque park nook that includes a pavilion, picnic tables and plenty of open space.

"What I love about the park is it's peaceful and tranquil in the middle of a busy town," Cochran said, slowing to watch a handful of families having lunch outdoors. "It's three minutes from downtown and you would never know it. There is something here for just about everyone."

Riverside Park is a 560-acre gem tucked alongside the winding Guadalupe River. The park offers golf, running trails, playgrounds and more.

In 1939, however, the city lacked such a public space. That year, Victoria businessmen decided the city needed a municipal park.

So, they traveled by horseback across the rough land along the river - in the area now known as Grover's Bend - and began to plan.

After collecting donations of as little as 10 cents and as much as $1,150, the business leaders funded a park blueprint and bought chunks of land.

Although slowed by World War II, the plan and land grab progressed. The city slowly began to grow its park and in 1958 received a donated lion, which became the anchor animal in what became The Texas Zoo.

Today, the zoo remains vibrant, packed with animals of all sorts. The golf course boasts 27 holes. The park grew to stretch for more than four miles along the river, which winds and bends southward. Nature trails guide visitors into quiet wooded areas.

"This is one of our greatest assets, and we've finally seen it come alive in a new way," said Sharon Steen, a longtime former parks commissioner and chairwoman.

Steen pressed for years for city workers to clear debris from under sturdy oaks and along the banks. Now, kayakers have easy access to paddling trails and other visitors enjoy unobstructed views to much of the water.

Of course, the park offers dry entertainment, too, including baseball parks, basketball courts, 175 picnic areas and disc golf.

Soon, The PumpHouse, a privately owned Riverside restaurant and bar, will open in an area where diners can view two bends in the Guadalupe.

Just as with the future restaurant - a Texas historical site - much of the park's amenities flow across treasured ground. Land within the park once was the foundation for a historic mission.

It is today's activity, though, that seems to most excite Cochran, the parks director since 1998. He steered around the duck pond and back toward his office.

"I like to see people out here," Cochran said. "That means they've decided to spend some of their free time in the park. That just makes me feel good."

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