Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 06 October 2009 13:33
If the new Joel H. Wiens Stadium is the crown jewel of athletic facilities in Hillsboro, the landscaping surrounding it may be the gold setting that makes it pop.
As Tabor College prepares for its dedication ceremony of the facility Saturday as part of homecoming activities, supporters may be surprised to learn that the masterminds behind the ring of natural beauty surrounding the concrete and steel are a team of local volunteers.
Of the more noticeable landscape elements: The garden area behind the stadium seating.
It may be even more surprising to know that the person leading that team has been none other than Larry Nikkel, president emeritus of the college.
That assignment may be a little “earthy” for someone who spearheaded the academic and institutional development of the college for 10 years before stepping down in December 2007.
But those who know Nikkel and his love for trees and shrubs—as well as for the college—realize it’s a perfect fit.
“The landscape plan was something that I volunteered to oversee,” he said.
The decision to make landscaping a volunteer effort was a cost-cutting measure to compensate for buying power lost during the prolonged legal delay aimed to stop the 50-50, private-public partnership between Tabor College and USD 410.
Usually, landscaping is included in the overall architectural package of a project.
“We pulled it out because we said we think we can do it more economically, and we think we have the interest and skills to be able to do some of that on our own,” Nikkel said.
He has both in his background. Through the years Nikkel has spearheaded the planting of a small forest of trees—some 1,500 on the campus of Prairie View mental health center in Newton while he was CEO there, dozens more on the Tabor College campus during his presidency, and more than a few at his home in Hillsboro and for other family endeavors.
“Part of it was when you grow up in the Oklahoma Panhandle, trees were kind of a premium,” he said about his passion for trees. “On the farm we had two mulberry trees and 100 Chinese elms.
“Then all of a sudden you find out there’s this whole world out there that we really didn’t have much experience with.”
Authorized with a budget of $40,000 and a mandate to take charge of the planning, Nikkel said he had two primary objectives at the start: to underspend the budget and to involve local residents on the committee in keeping with the Tabor-USD 410 partnership.
“I wanted the committee to be a true community-based committee so we could take common ownership and hopefully pride,” Nikkel said.
Though he didn’t know of the resources available when he started, he says now he couldn’t have asked for a better team. Serving with him have been Krista Heinrichs, Eric Rector and Tim Unruh.
To his surprise, both Rector and Unruh have had significant training and experience in landscaping.
“I was just delighted that they were willing to do it, and delighted to learn of their experience and giftedness,” Nikkel said. “Krista and I come at this more from a layperson’s perspective, but with a lot of interest.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better committee.”
The task at hand
The task of the committee was not so much hands-on dirt work as in researching, designing and overseeing the implementation of the landscape plan.
Because the heavy-use season for the stadium will be fall and spring, the team set an early goal for trees it would select.
“We wanted almost every tree to be either spring flowering and/or have fall color,” Nikkel said.
Of the 108 trees planted at the site, varieties include maples, oaks, red bud, Hawthorne and ornamental pears.
“Many of the trees will have spring blossoms and all will have fall color,” Nikkel said. “So in 10 years, if they do what they’re supposed to do, it should be a virtual park.”
The team worked closely with several area nurseries, which did the actual planting. Stone Creek in Hesston, Smoky Valley in McPherson and Schroeder Nursery east of Goessel have been working primarily with trees.
The Garden Center in Hillsboro, meanwhile, has specialized in shrubs and perennials.
“All of them gave us really good prices and were wonderful to work with,” Nikkel said.
Several of the nurseries even donated a tree to the project.
Challenges along the way
The team has faced its share of challenges along the way, not the least of which was the decision not to have a grassy hillside along the northwest side of the stadium—a replication of the area fans in the past would sit on blankets to watch games.
“As the project progressed, the stadium floor had to be built up so high that it became too steep for that,” Nikkel said.
Plan B was to build a retaining wall along the track, which created landscape beds—and an unexpected challenge for the committee.
In the end, Sharon Boese of The Garden Center did the primary design and planting of the grasses and shrubs now planted there.
“I think we have to say, now that the project is completed, that it adds a really great dimension to the looks of the stadium,” Nikkel said of the planters.
Another challenge was the narrowing window of opportunity to plant trees and vegetation as the deadline for completion drew closer.
Of the more noticeable landscape elements: the elevated plant beds along the running track.
The first nine trees were planted in May in the mall area between the Campus Recreation Center and the baseball field. The other 99 were planted in two working days—Sept. 14 and 15.
In preparation, Nikkel and his team had staked the location for each tree, and identified which nursery was responsible for planting it.
But the day before planting was to begin, the team realized its plan for watering the trees immediately after planting was inadequate.
After making that assessment, USD 410 board member Dale Klassen offered the use of his truck and a 1,250-gallon tank instead of the 250-gallon tank Nikkel had reserved. That meant they could use a much larger hose to apply the water.
Instead of a “trickle, trickle, trickle” from the original garden hose, “it was a gusher,” Nikkel said, and it worked to perfection.
“It was just so much fun to see this whole thing come together, and all those people who were working at one piece or another,” he added.
Sense of satisfaction
With the stadium project essentially complete, Nikkel is pleased with the result.
“I think when we started the project we probably could not have envisioned ending up with something that is going to be this nice—the total package,” he said. “It’s more than I would have expected we would ever get done. It’s very satisfying.”
As for the landscaping effort, not only did the team finish $14,000 under budget, but the aesthetic results it achieved have been just as satisfying.
“I’m a strong believer in the idea that if you have a quality program, but it doesn’t look good when people drive up, they’re not going to think it’s good,” he said. “But if it’s beautiful, you give yourself a shot.
“I’ve always believed in that, and this is part of it.
“There are more expensive stadiums around, but I don’t think we have to apologize for a second for what we’ve got,” he added. “The landscaping committee’s thinking was that we can put the finishing touch to this project by doing a great job of landscaping.
“I think it’s a good package.”