SOUTH PORTLAND – On Monday, the South Portland City Council awarded a $321,485 contract to Peters Construction of Gorham to make “Phase I” improvements to Mill Creek Park, but that may not be the biggest news to come out of the city’s signature site this week.

On Tuesday, City Manager Jim Gailey said he’s taken the first step toward eventually evicting the ducks, which have become both loved and reviled in recent years. Although a favorite of young and old alike, the ducks have overrun the 10-acre park, creating as much genuine panic as postcard moments for some park patrons.

Now, the great bulk of them could be gone by July, shipped of by federal conservation agents.

“As long as they’re gone, and they’re not harmed, I’m OK,” said Gailey.

As recently as January, the duck issue was still something city officials were not quite sure how to grapple with.

“The ducks are doing more bad than good in the park,” Gailey said Jan. 9, when the council last saw Mill Creek Park renovation plans. “It’s kind of a hot potato, and one that we really haven’t tackled too much.”

Signs were put up last year asking people not to feed the ducks, in hope the waterfowl might seek out other sources of sustenance. It didn’t help.

“The ducks are a conversation people seem just now willing to be able to have,” said Regina Leonard, a landscape architect hired to lead the park overhaul. “For a long time, it was a subject people were unwilling to touch.”

Matters seemed to come to a head in February, just after the inaugural Winter Festival, sponsored by the South Portland/ Cape Elizabeth Rotary Club. Event organizer Dan Mooers appeared before the council to ask that the ducks be finally and fully ostracized from the park. Not only were the giant flocks a nuisance during the festival, their fecal matter ruined many events and they prompted uncivil behavior from park patrons, some of whom reacted with angry words when reminded of the do-not-feed signs.

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis also reported being yelled at when pointing out the signs to people intent on feeding the ducks anyway.

Gailey said on Monday he contacted Maine Audubon for advice on how to deal with the occupying waterfowl.

“They referred me to Inland Fisheries and Wildlife,” he said, “and they referred me to the national Inland Fisheries. So, now I’m dealing with the feds.”

Gailey said there will be a fee to remove the ducks, although he does not yet know how much it will run. “This is all at the very, very beginning stages,” he said.

However, Gailey said he was told that the easiest time to catch and transport the ducks will be when they are molting, which means sometime in July.

“Things should happen by then,” he said.

Ducks are not the only aspect of the park to generate strong feelings. The new Veterens’ Green dedicated last year drew comment from Jake Myrik, an Iraqi War veteran who served from 1998 to 2004.

The park improvement plan approved unanimously Monday by councilors eliminated all but one planned path to the new service monument, and Myrik, claiming to speak for “many others,” was not happy about it.

“There’s a lot of anger and concern over the walking paths in this phase of construction,” he told the council. “We feel that you have really isolated that monument and not created access from other areas of the park.”

Saying he personally knew two local men who have died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, Councilor Tom Coward also raised an objection, but relented when Gailey promised that everything on the original master plan for the park will get done, eventually.

“Did we want to do everything in Phase I? Absolutely,” he said. “But we had to push some things off because we just don’t have the money, and things called for around the monument – the granite pavers and the granite curbing – is expensive.”

Work awarded to Peters Construction, to begin this month with plans to wrap before the annual Art in the Park show, will include improvements to the gazebo and the Mill Stone Plaza area, construction of several 4-foot-wide stone dust paths, landscaping around the service monument, and creation of a formal public garden at the corner of Broadway and Ocean Street, with masonry walls, pillars and a wrought iron arch.

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