Remembrance and renewal at McGregor pocket park dedication

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On July 11, McGregor’s new pocket park was dedicated in honor of Roger Witter, who lost his life clearing debris in the aftermath of the July 19, 2017 tornado. Pictured for the ribbon cutting were Ellen Burns, Roger’s daughter Beth Witter, grandson Eli, daughter Allison Thomas and wife Linda Witter, along with McGregor Mayor Lyle Troester and McGregor Deputy Clerk Duane Boelman. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

The pocket park is located next to the McGregor Public Library, where the historic Troutfetter Building stood before it was destroyed by the tornado. Fred Petrie and Melanie SanFillippo donated the lot to the city not long after, hoping it could be used for future civic use.

Joan Burns, who led the efforts to create the R.D. Witter Memorial Pocket Park, spoke at the dedication, highlighting all those who made the project possible.

“Vacant lots can be the beginning of a blight, the beginning of a decline in the vitality of Main Streets in Iowa and throughout the Midwest,” Burns told those gathered. “But they can also be an opportunity. They can also be a what-if. What can we do with this vacant lot to grow this community, to invigorate the economy, to welcome tourists, to provide a place for families to gather? That was the inception of this.”

Mayor Lyle Troester likened creation of the pocket park to the regeneration of the forest surrounding McGregor, now two years after the July 19, 2017 tornado. “Just like the trees that are regenerating in the hills, this lot is regenerating as well,” he said. “The tornado brought forth a surge of community response, but I think one of the most important things it brought forth was a link from the old to the new.”

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

July 11 was a day of remembrance and renewal in McGregor, as community members gathered to dedicate the city’s new pocket park, named in honor of beloved local farmer Roger Witter, who lost his life clearing debris in the aftermath of the July 19, 2017 tornado.

The pocket park is located next to the McGregor Public Library, where the historic Troutfetter Building stood before it was destroyed by the tornado. Fred Petrie and Melanie SanFillippo donated the lot to the city not long after, hoping it could be used for future civic use.

Although plans initially focused on constructing a library addition and community center at the spot, they later shifted to include a more immediate use for the space.

“I was fortunate enough to attend a historic preservation conference last summer,” recalled Joan Burns, who led the efforts to create the park. “One of the sessions was about vacant lots on Main Streets of small town Iowa.”

“Vacant lots can be the beginning of a blight, the beginning of a decline in the vitality of Main Streets in Iowa and throughout the Midwest,” she told those gathered. “But they can also be an opportunity. They can also be a what-if. What can we do with this vacant lot to grow this community, to invigorate the economy, to welcome tourists, to provide a place for families to gather? That was the inception of this.”

 With help from McGregor’s streets department, led by Ren Pape, the lot was transformed over the past two weeks. Now graveled and level, the space includes several picnic tables made from recycled materials, planter boxes and bike racks. 

“It’s been a trying summer for everyone,” Burns noted. “Ren has been on call 24/7 and he has worked tirelessly to get this even like it is today, so we can dedicate the park.” 

MFL MarMac teacher Joe Milewsky and his industrial technology students created a stage that can be used for library programming and live music performances. They also built some planter benches that will soon be in the park, as well as a pergola that will stand at the entrance.

“I reached out to Mr. Milewsky back in the middle of the winter and asked if they were interested in building any components for this area, and he grabbed right on to that,” Burns said. “What better way to showcase the talents and skills of local high school students than to have them contribute to our park area?”

Pat and Ben Mullarkey, with Pat’s Electric, donated their time to bring power outside the library, so the pocket park can host several outdoor movies this summer. The first, “Spiderman Into the Spider-verse,” will play on Saturday, July 27. That will be followed by “Mama Mia” on Saturday, Aug. 24, and “True Grit” on Saturday, Sept. 14. All movies will begin at dusk.

“I want people to bring chairs and blankets and sit out here and watch the movies,” Burns quipped. “Bring snacks and beverages.”

Much of the funding for the pocket park project came from remaining Restore McGregor funds (the other half helped start the Alexander McGregor Endowment). Many of those dollars were memorials made in Roger Witter’s name. Dedicating the park in his honor was an easy decision.

“We are very grateful to the Witter family for all they contributed to the community and to the tornado disaster relief fund that allowed us to establish this park for civic use,” said Burns. “While some people who live far away from our community may think one life was lost, that was certainly one too many. What better way to memorialize his dedication to family and friends than to establish a place that family and friends can gather.” 

Mayor Lyle Troester likened creation of the pocket park to the regeneration of the forest surrounding McGregor, now two years after the tornado.

“The tornado produced a lot of changes for McGregor. It brought about a lot of heartache, a lot of sorrow, a lot of damage. Our entire landscape changed. We lost buildings and thousands of trees. Lives everywhere in this town were disrupted. But you know,” he said, “once before, all of these hills were bare. There were no trees. If you look back in history, the trees were harvested to help the steam engines go up and down the river and the logs were floated down the river and the trees were used for firewood and lumber for building a vibrant community of 5,000 people. So now, just like before, you look up into the hills and see re-growth. It’s coming back.”

Troester reflected on the Troutfetter Building’s place in McGregor history. At different points, he remembered, it held a grocery store, restaurant, woodworking shop, tae kwon do training center and, most recently, the INKspiration tattoo parlor.

“Now, that building’s gone. But just like the trees that are regenerating in the hills, this lot is regenerating as well. The tornado brought forth a surge of community response, but I think one of the most important things it brought forth was a link from the old to the new,” he said. “We repaired the old, and it brought forth all this new activity. We have a new park that’s not only dedicated to remember a historic, landmark building, but it’s also to remember a man who grew up in this area, worked his entire life in this area, loved this area, loved the river, loved to have fun, loved the beauty of this area. He loved everything that so often we take for granted. Roger Witter died trying to restore his little part of the world to normal following the tornado.” 

“Now,” Troester continued, “he represents all of this work, all the effort and love put into restoring and improving this town of McGregor. It’s fitting that we can remember and honor Rog to represent so many in this pocket park, where people can come together, they can have fun, they can relax, they can reflect, they can laugh and cry, and they can remember and they can find peace. I sincerely hope the Witter family can find comfort and pride in this park, a symbol of preserving and bettering our historic McGregor.”

Roger’s wife, Linda, who attended the dedication with daughters Beth and Allison and grandson Eli, said her husband would be looking down on everyone with a grin on his face.

“I know he would be proud of this,” she remarked. “I want to thank everyone who came out to honor him, who helped us get through this. This is a great town, and I’m glad to say I live in McGregor.”

Moving forward, Burns said the community will continue to grow the park and its offerings. Stairs will soon be constructed, allowing people to cross the storm sewer from the pocket park to Artesian Park behind the library. “Sun-brellas” would be nice for the picnic tables, as well as a food truck or stand to use for concessions. Community members are welcome to plant trees or place benches in memory of loved ones.

“The possibilities are endless here,” she said. “I encourage us all to think, ‘what-if? What can we do to make a really horrible, tragic situation into something better for McGregor?’” We know that’s what Rog would’ve wanted.”

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