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YEAR OF THE PARK: Towns, breweries going green in 2013

An advisory committee is planning Tuxedo Community Park. An advisory committee is planning Tuxedo Community Park.

Jaime Laughter has served as Mills River's town manager from concept through construction of the town's 50-acre community park. In that role, she's observed a shift in the public's perception of the 10-year-old town that is now the proud owner of a park.

"The most interesting thing about the park is when I first got here when I said I work for the town of Mills River, people would say, how many cows do you have out there now?" she said. "Now when I say I'm the town manager at Mills River the first thing they ask me about is the park."
Parks are surging in Henderson CouJaimeLaughterJaime Laughternty.
For a variety of reasons, communities are demanding more parks and elected officials are responding. In a county ruled mostly by avowed fiscal conservatives, and where spending for anything new is often met with voter skepticism, parks have vaulted to the top of the priority list.
Consider that in 2013, no fewer than six communities have plans for new parks, major additions to parks and new recreation offerings. Of those, all are public except for a zipline adventure in Saluda, which will be a public-private joint development if the owners get a federal grant as expected.
Among the park plans in the works for 2013:
• Mills River will launch phase 2 of its master plan for development, including a longer walking trail, ball fields and more parking. It also has plans in partnership with N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission for a fishing pier on the Mills River.
• Henderson County will launch development of its newest recreation asset, the former Hendersonville Christian School property on South Grove Street. Acquisition of the 9.5-acre school campus gives the county a gym for the first time and a classroom building for indoor activities. The Board of Commissioners voted to buy the property for $910,000, spend $1 million on startup costs for improvements and devote $186,000 annually for programming and maintenance personnel.
• The Tuxedo Park advisory committee is working on plans for a 6.4-acre community park on the site of the old Tuxedo Mill on Old U.S. Highway 25. The county cleared the land for the park. It has not allocated money for park construction yet but it is expected to fund improvements in partnership with community fundraising efforts.
• Henderson County commissioners also authorized an upgrade of Jackson Park to raise the baseball fields to tournament standards and renovate outdated restrooms.
• The Hendersonville City Council took a second step toward development of 60-acre Berkeley Park when it authorized a consultant to move ahead with cost projections and detailed plans for playgrounds, a soccer field, walking trails, youth mountain bike trails and other improvements.
• The Flat Rock Village Council created an advisory committee to explore whether it should buy the Highland Lake Golf Club for use as a park. The advisory committee has tentatively recommended phased development of passive features including a playground, restrooms, walking trails, picnic shelters and a central feature like a fountain or gazebo for community events.
• Fletcher Community Park will open two new features this spring — a dog park and a fitness circuit. The Fletcher rec department also plans to replace the playground at Kate's Park at the town library.

Why parks?
Why do we want parks?
"I think it's human nature," says Laughter, the Mills River town manager, "to be out and active, to be out in the community ... I notice because of where my window is I can look out on the park, I can see people stop on the walking trail, talking. They come to the park and all of a sudden they see each other and start catching up. What a park represents in our community is a place where everybody can come together, in a light-hearted setting. We see a lot of our folks out here exercising and improving their health, and that adds to their quality of life."
Fletcher parks director Greg Walker says social changes and demographics are behind the demand for parks and open space.
"I think there's two things in Henderson County that kind of drive park need," he says. "The baby boomers are moving into retirement. Baby boomers are the first generation that's been active their whole life, and (they are saying) now that I'm able to retire I'm not going to just sit at the house. I'm still going to do the things I want to do but I want to do them in my community.
"I think another piece that's driven park use is you're starting to see the women that benefited from Title IX in the early '70s, they've grown up with sports and activity their whole lives and now as adult moms they want to continue that and share that with their kids." It's no surprise then that 60 percent of park users are female.
Recreation directors say the growing demand for Americans to get off the couch matters, too.
"People realize that they've got to do something," Walker says. "Not everybody can belong to a gym or club but everybody can utilize their park. Parks create a place of peace, which kind of helps with their stress reduction."

What about the cost?
Parks are lovely and green, and a nice place to take the children or grandchildren.
But they do bring a cost to taxpayers. It costs money to buy the land, build playgrounds, parking lots, restrooms and trails. It costs to clean those restrooms, pick up the trash and police the picnic shelters.
Mills River has no police or public works department. Zoning administrator Pat Christie doubles as parks and recreation director. The Mills River Town Council has seen costs rise as it moves further into park development. The Carland family agreed to donate $75,000 for tennis courts. The Town Council paid the balance on the job, about $105,000. Flavor 1st has donated $100,000 toward ball fields, which will cost about $300,000. The state wildlife agency will pay for a fishing pier and parking lot, but still the town gets the bill for supplies, at about $10,000. The state DOT agreed to pay two-thirds of the cost of a left turn lane on N.C. 191; that leaves the town with a bill for $83,000.
But a library and a park is what Mills River residents said they wanted most when the rural area known for its rich French Broad bottomland became a town in 2003. When town leaders sent a survey to every property owner, "Park was what they heard," Laughter said.
Before the Board of Commissioners changed the allocation formula, sales tax was distributed by population, not the ad valorem tax rate.
"During those times of getting the higher sales tax, council kept staffing low, they were conservative in their budget, they really looked at every expenditure they made," the manager said. "So they were able to save a good amount of money right upfront."
The town bought the 50-acre tract from the federal government, which had seized it from a farmer convicted of crop insurance fraud.
Laughter and Christie worked long hours on the town's application for a state parks grant and it paid off. The state granted $500,000 for the first phase of park work, covering half the cost. The park is popular with dog owners, walkers and families with young children. The town runs with a lean staff.
"I don't think anybody ever anticipates how much it takes to run a park," Laughter says. "If you don't have the grass mowed regularly and just so you will hear about it. With the dog park, or even allowing dogs on the property, one person doesn't clean up after themselves and it ruins the experience for everybody else. If you've got three (picnic shelter) reservations in a day you've got to have somebody there to determine which group made the mess and doesn't get their deposit back. Doggybags — you'd be shocked at how many we go through. It's our top supply cost."
Whether it's tennis courts, the fishing pier or ball fields, the Mills River Town Board is moving ahead now on projects that others will help finance.
"When we see an opportunity to actually make that master plan happen we try to leverage it," Laughter said. "I think that's what you saw with the council. They have an opportunity with the turn lane. They know they're going to have to do it. Why turn down money that we can leverage now and not cost the citizens later?"

Flat Rock explores a park
Parks sometimes come from unplanned opportunity. The chance to get land for a good rate triggered the county's purchase of the Hendersonville Christian School campus, and it could drive Flat Rock's decision on the Highland Lake golf course.
"That piece of property is a gateway to the village of Flat Rock and it is green space that we would very much like to see remain as green space, and council felt that the only way for it to remain green space was to buy it and develop it as a park," said Flat Rock Mayor Bob Staton. "Secondly, a lot of the areas in Flat Rock are very hilly and not walkable because of the hills. Kenmure, for instance, where I live, is not walkable for someone of my age and weight group. The golf course is all fairly level. When we did a survey a couple of years ago about what citizens would like to see, trails and sidewalks were at the top of the list."
Council members also hear from residents who say "they don't have any place to take their grandchildren," Staton said. "We've had a call for that kind of activity in Flat Rock."
If the council decides to buy the land, it cannot by law pay more than an appraisal. The town just ordered one last week.
"We do know the owners offered to sell to the county for $1.1 million," he said. "It's on the market for $1.3 million. We believe we could probably get it for $1.1 million. If we agreed to pay $1.1 million and (the appraisal) comes in less than that we would not be able to pay the higher price."
As for construction, the committee has made no recommendation yet. As for maintenance, "they have ballpark numbers which come to around $100,000 a year," Staton said. He described that amount as affordable. If it bought the land, the council would pay cash from its $4.8 million reserve fund, Staton said.
"We know there's a lot of resistance to our pursuing the park at all if it is going to involve a tax increase," he said. "We can't say that it will and we can't say that it won't until we get all the information."
In Flat Rock, 1 cent per $100 valuation in property tax raises about $83,000.
Ginger Brown, the chair of the Highland Lake Exploratory Committee, said the committee's survey has shown support for a park, as long as it's for passive daytime use and is perceived as safe. Like Staton, she says the Village ought to act now if it wants to control what happens to a large piece of land currently on the market.
"Let's say somebody bought it and put some more golf condos in and the rest was left to grow up," Brown said. "I think the Village would say gee, we had an opportunity to buy that in 2012 and we didn't and now we're sorry."
County parks director Tim Hopkin, who has answered questions from the exploratory committee, said ongoing costs would depend on how the land is used.
"Everyone is used to looking at it and seeing it as a golf course, so the real question is, are they anticipating it continuing to look like a golf course without the greens and flags in place?" he said. "So if that's the case, that's a level of maintenance that may be slightly higher than you would have in regular park maintenance. There's a lot of Bermuda grass in that facility."

Meeting top priorities
When the Henderson County Board of Commissioners opened the floor for comments on buying the Christian school property, Little League coaches, parents and Recreation Advisory Board members strongly endorsed the move. The county has needed a gym for 50 years, a former recreation director said, and now it has the opportunity to get one.
Hopkin is about to see his portfolio expand, and he's glad of it.
For years the county rec staffers have patched together indoor play using school gyms.
"We're allowed to use it after they've used it," he said. "At the end of the day when you've finished all your practices it might be 9 o'clock. That's not the best time to ask the kids to come out."
The Christian school gym could accommodate homeschool activities, adult basketball and volleyball leagues, pickle ball, pre-school and home-school sports, badminton and teenage open gym times. BRCC, which now uses the Justice Academy gym for the physical fitness requirements of basic law enforcement training, has expressed an interest in using the county's new gym.
A new 300x70-foot soccer field could partially meet the no. 1 priority from the 2007 survey. A rec center was No. 2, which the school property could address with programs in the gym and classroom building.

Tuxedo Park
Working with the Tuxedo Park advisory committee, Hopkin and a landscape architect have created a draft plan for the 6.4-acre park. Now an open field, the flat land could be home to a walking trail, multipurpose sports court, restrooms, community building, pavilion, a "tot lot," bigger kids playground, a flag court and open meadow.
"The community is working hard raising money to match future funding sources," Hopkin said. "We don't have any current budget money" for improvements. He is using budgeted money for the landscape design.
"We're really working hard to meet and identify their needs," he said.
Hopkin said he's glad to see the passion for parks.
"I think the interest has always been there," he said. "I think what we have is a more vocal community right now, one that's understanding the benefits. I think maybe we've done a good job as a community and as a nation and as a profession to try to really make everybody understand the benefits of parks and recreation. It's one of those things the county is able to offer to its citizens as part of its full package, whether it's the sheriff's department, EMS, safety, or water and sewer lines."

Parks, people and politics
Parks come in different shapes and sizes.
"It could be a greenway, that's a park in itself," Hopkin said. "It could be something like Westfeldt Park, which provides access to the French Broad River."
And parks hold appeal for as many reasons as there are people. That's one reason, said Walker, the Fletcher parks director, that parks are politically doable.
"I think part of it is if you design a park for multi-use, you can get a lot of variety of uses — walking, people coming and doing nothing more than reading a book, people bringing their children to the playground — so you're able to reach several different levels within a voting constituency. You've got retirees that use parks, you've got families that use parks, you've got singles that use parks. Some of the issue you run into with school funding is, I don't have kids in school. Everybody can conceivably benefit from a park."
Laughter, the Mills River manager and a runner herself, seconds that.
"Our culture is changing, and there is more of an emphasis on health and being active," she said. "In the political climate in the county I do think people are asking for parks and the politicians are responding, which is what they're supposed to do. They're supposed to listen to the people."