Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan was running for his first term in office four years ago when he first heard the question: Why doesn’t Slidell have a dog park?
He thought it was a valid question. Other cities have “off-leash” parks where people can enjoy outdoor romps with their dogs. Slidell, by contrast, doesn’t allow animals in its parks at all.
After he was elected, the new mayor began pitching the idea to incoming classes of Leadership Northshore, a leadership development program that divides participants into teams that carry out civic improvement projects. But no one bit until 2012, when Lee Cosgrove, Amanda Hover, John Gallaher, Jesse Lamonte and Rachel Perez decided that a dog park was a genuine need and they would take on the challenge.
That was the genesis of the Camellia City Bark Park, an ambitious plan to carve out a dog park in a heavily wooded section of Fritchie Park on the south side of town.
Two of the five members of the leadership team, Cosgrove and Hover, didn’t even own dogs. But they didn’t need one to recognize the value in providing a place for people and their pets.
At present, Slidell-area dog lovers have to trek to New Orleans or Mandeville to find an off-leash park to enjoy with their pets, Cosgrove said. She sees the planned park not only as something for residents but also as a way to build tourism. Dog lovers travel, too, she noted.
Hover sees more than just another recreation outlet. She said the park is a way to build community in an era when people no longer sit on their stoops in the evening to pass the time with their neighbors.
A dog park can serve the same function, she said, because — unlike playgrounds and ballparks, which mostly draw families with children — a dog park attracts people of all ages.
Denise Indorf, owner of a bakery for dogs called Cafe Du Bone in Slidell’s Olde Towne, said interest in the park is high. “It’s good for dogs to get out and socialize with other dogs,’’ she said. “Pets are part of families ... and they are looking for pet-friendly places.’’
Customers ask her on a daily basis when the park will open, she said.
That’s a question the Camellia City Bark Park team can’t yet answer.
The 5.4-acre portion of Fritchie Park that the city offered for the dog park contains wetlands, and that meant getting through the permitting process was more time-consuming than anyone on the team anticipated.
They’ve also been working on raising the money needed to build the park — an estimated $200,000 for a park with what Hover described as all the bells and whistles. The plan for the park, devised by RCI Landscape, calls for two enclosures, one for small dogs only and the other for all dogs, plus a woodland trail, benches, a picnic pavilion and even a splash pad for dogs.
A more modest start can be made for about $70,000, Hover said. The team has raised about $25,000 with events like its Tailgating Pawties associated with the Krewe de Paws dog parade in Olde Towne and by selling commemorative bricks on its website. They’ve also received in-kind contributions and are one of the groups that will benefit from this year’s Heritage Festival. They are pursuing corporate sponsorships as well.
Concrete progress is finally visible: The city began clearing underbrush two weeks ago, although rain has caused delays because the wetlands permit won’t allow the use of heavy machinery when ruts might be left behind. “We could use a dry stretch,’’ Drennan said.
And while Hover is reluctant to give a projected opening date, PetSmart is working with the group and plans to put up a temporary structure, known as a pop-up park, that people and their dogs will be able to use while construction proceeds.
That could be available in the next few months, Hover said, and she and Drennan both think that having a temporary park in place will generate more excitement about the project and bring in more donations.
Drennan, who has been touting the park in recent speeches, said his original hope was to have a dog park open while he was mayor — and that’s another four years.
But now he thinks that dogs and their owners might have a place to play in Slidell much sooner — within the next year.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.