Man hopes to honor his late mother and ‘make 2020 hindsight’ with new dog park in Toquerville

Jeff Willmitt hopes to honor his late mother Renee Willmitt through creating a dog park in Toquerville, Utah. In this photo, Renee Willmitt sits on a park bench in Loma Linda, California, circa 2020 | Photo courtesy of Jeff Willmitt, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — People who pass through Toquerville might not notice the park by LaVerkin Creek on Arches Street and Zions Parkway. There’s not much there aside from a well-kept bathroom facility, a few frisbee golf baskets and some trees. But one Toquerville man hopes that will change in the coming weeks and the park will transform into the nicest dog park and community gathering place ever created.

Renee Willmitt sits with a dog at a dog park in Loma Linda, California, circa 2020 | Photo courtesy of Jeff Willmitt, St. George News

The past year hasn’t been easy, and Jeff Willmitt knows that as well as anyone. When he and his wife relocated to Toquerville from southern California 10 months ago, his 91-year-old mother Renee remained in a memory care facility where she was being treated for Alzheimer’s disease. After defeating COVID-19 in July and receiving her first dose of the vaccine in January, Renee passed away, shortly after Willmitt’s dog died in his arms.

“We took care of her from my home, and when it was time to go to the dog park she just loved it,” Willmitt told St. George News. “She was real introverted when she was having trouble, but the dogs – she spoke their language, I think. She’d laugh and giggle, they’d jump on her lap and she’d hug them. Alzheimer’s can have a lot of stress associated with it with the confusion, but when she was there she didn’t want to leave.”

Willmitt was taught by his mother — who was born in 1929 in Liverpool, England, and survived the bombings of World War II — to contribute to his community, he said. In addition to honoring her memory with a new dog park for the city, he hopes that it will also be a place where people can gather for music festivals, buy memorial benches to honor their lost loved ones and pets and interact with one another and their dogs. 

“I think we have a great park over here with the best bathroom facilities, but that’s it. There’s no park bench, no gazebo, nothing to gather from a community sense,” Willmitt said. “It’s been a journey, and I’ve got to get this done because this is the end of the chapter of 2020.”

The dog park will have two sections, one for small dogs and one for big dogs. Willmitt said that he wants it to look from space like one big dog bone. He also hopes to install an archway over the entrance in the shape of a dog collar, with a dog license hanging down with a “T” for Toquerville and the year the city was established. Willmitt added that he thinks it will be important to have agility courses and things like tires for the dogs so they can interact with their owners. 

There will also be fire hydrants, a fountain, benches dedicated to lost pets and loved ones, including Willmitt’s mother, and a gazebo. The gazebo will be accessible from both sides of the dog park so musicians can set up and play and people can watch from the grass. 

The city of Toquerville made plans several years ago to build a dog park, but there were other priorities and the dog park got pushed back, Lance Gubler, public works administrator, told St. George News. So when Willmitt told the Toquerville City Council that he was willing to do all the work and gather all the funds himself, the city jumped at the chance. 

This map shows the plan for the upcoming Toquerville dog park | Photo courtesy of Jeff Willmitt, St. George News

“It’s something they weren’t looking for and now they are because of his desire, and that’s what the city wants … something that the citizens want,” Gubler said. “We’re a small city. We don’t have a lot of money, but Jeff has taken it upon himself to do this in honor of his mother, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

With Gubler’s help, Willmitt has a quote for the fencing, commitment from the city, about 20% of the necessary funds and a fire hydrant. He hopes that local businesses and community members will donate money, time or supplies, such as fencing and concrete. In the 10 months he’s lived in the city, he said, he’s received nothing but kindness from the community, including a builder who helped him purchase land and build his home several years ago. 

“That’s what I like about this area – the pioneer spirit,” he said. “People take more pride in things when they’re participating.”

Willmitt estimates that the total project will cost about $25,000. He created a GoFundMe page and asks that people donate there instead of giving cash or checks. Anyone with questions or interest in discussing the project can call 435-775-0015

“I’ve been having a difficult time since she passed and maybe this is my way of coping,” Willmitt said. “Let’s turn tail on last year, make 2020 hindsight, and show that we can, in Mom’s British style, ‘keep calm and carry on.’”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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