Westerville City Council has decided to move forward with plans to renovate First Responders Park.
The city has planned a $1 million expansion of the park at 374 W. Main St. to include expanding the park's space into the parking lot and changing the shape to include two memorial walls.
The main impetus for the new park would be to incorporate a memorial for Westerville Division of Police officers Eric Joering and Anthony Morelli, who died in the line of duty while responding to a call Feb. 10. Their names would be placed next to that of David Theisen, a Westerville firefighter who died in 1998 while battling a fire in Crooksville.
Currently, the two focal points of the park are a sculpture called "The Crossing," which was commissioned in memory of Theisen in 2011, and a section of steel known as "C-40" from the north tower of the World Trade Center that fell during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001.
The two pieces stand side by side. In the new plan, they would be separated, leading some -- including Tom Ullom, a retired firefighter who led the efforts to create the park in 2011, to question the necessity of the changes.
The Westerville chapters of both the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Fraternal Order of Police pledged support for the new plans.
Council on Sept. 4 instructed staff members to "continue with the planning based on the current version" of the plan, according to city spokeswoman Christa Dickey.
"We can now continue with the development of the plan," she said. "When we're ready to go out to bid and those kinds of things, we'll follow the traditional process."
Ullom and others spoke against the changes at the Sept. 4 meeting, but Randy Auler, Westerville's parks and recreation director, said his department had heard hundreds of comments on the matter, and felt they were "overwhelmingly" in support of the changes.
"We feel confident saying 85 to 90 percent of the people we've heard from or spoken with believe that the park, as presented, is the right direction to go," Auler said.
Mayor Craig Treneff said the topic was a "tough issue" because so many "feel strongly about it and very emotional about it."
But while he had sympathy for those who didn't want the park changed, he said, he felt the new memorial was fitting.
"I don't think anyone here is taking lightly the concerns expressed here tonight or (in comments)," he said. "What drives this is Feb. 10, at least in my mind.
"We need a fitting memorial for what happened in this city. And it's broader than just Tony and Eric. It's a fitting memorial for all first responders, which I don't think can be accomplished in the context of the existing park with minimal or no changes," he said.
Dickey said city staff members will work through funding details and the bidding process for the required work. She said it's uncertain when the topic will return to council but said Sept. 11, 2019, is the overarching goal for completion.
"The ultimate deadline is to have the park in place and finished by next Sept. 11, in terms of that memorial observance," she said.