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Stephens says county could run park programs for city

The city has been unable to invest in Berkeley Park since voters turned down a $6 million bond issue in 2013. The city has been unable to invest in Berkeley Park since voters turned down a $6 million bond issue in 2013.

Hendersonville Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens says the city should explore a partnership with Henderson County to run recreation programs at the city’s Berkeley Mills Park or even take it over and make improvements.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. donated the 60 acres of land that contains the historic Berkeley Mills baseball stadium seven years ago. But after voters turned down a $6 million bond issue two years ago, the city has been unable to invest in the improvements.
A consultant drew a master plan in 2013 that included playgrounds, walking trails, mountain bike trails, a memorial tree garden, lakeside picnic area and other amenties.
“The study involves a lot of expense and a lot of management issues after it’s done and a big program issue,” said Stephens, who unveiled the city-county partnership idea in a campaign announcement on Monday. “It happened just before I came here, about the same time as the schools consolidated, that the city did away with their parks department. We maintain the parks that we have with our (public works) operations department but there are no programs. The county has an excellent parks department and a lot of activity. I think we need to contract with them in some form for the operations of Berkeley Park.”
Leaving aside construction costs, the city would incur a substantial cost on upkeep and running recreation programs as the park is built out.
“I don’t see how we could afford it,” Stephens said. “Money’s tight as a tick now. … I have a feeling that we would need to lease it and it would have to be maintained as a park or contract with them to manage it even.”
Steve Caraker, the other incumbent running for re-election, said Stephens’ idea is worth exploring. Challenger Rebecca Schwartz did not return a phone call seeking her response.
“I’m in favor of developing the park by ourselves but he brings up a good point that we could let the county run our facility,” Caraker said. “I don’t think that’s a bad idea depending on what conversations we have with the county.”
Like Stephens, Caraker says the city had gotten itself into a hole with debt service and other expenses while losing money when the state Legislature repealed the city franchise taxes.
“The General Assembly has got us stymied,” he said. “The only good source we have is the (state) water and sewer enterprise fund. We originally had $300,000 plugged in every fiscal year to build out Berkeley Park slowly.” Even that got pulled last spring when the city raised taxes to meet debt service and pay for more street paving.
“We’ve got a master plan and a good study and I think we just need to take it in small bites and keep moving forward,” Caraker said. “Applying for a matching grant is probably our best opportunity to develop the park. If we hadn’t spent a lot of treasure on a master plan and a study I might feel different. We’re too far into it to just walk away from it and turn it over to somebody else.”

Stephens launches campaign

Stephens made the Berkeley Mills proposal in a news release in which he also touted the council’s achievements over the past four years, including the city-county partnership to build the Wingate-Pardee-BRCC health sciences facility, Seventh Avenue revitalization, the restructuring of Downtown Hendersonville Inc. and a more user-friendly planning department.
After city voters turned down the park bond by a 53-47 percent margin, the city’s fallback option is to fund improvements piece by piece. That would require 15 phases, he said.
“I would like to pursue the possibility of an alternative to the City taking on this huge financial burden,” he said. “Suppose we offer the property, or lease it, to Henderson County.”
Maintaining eight parks (besides Berkeley) strains the city public works department.
The county “has an outstanding Parks and Recreation Department with resources that far exceed those of the city,” he said. “Berkeley Park is an asset to all the citizens of Henderson County, not just those who live in the City—thus its potential for amenities such as a baseball complex, soccer fields, amphitheater, playground, picnic areas, gardens, trails, dog park and a connection to the Oklawaha Greenway will benefit all. And, it will allow the city to allocate its park budget to maintaining and upgrading the remaining parks.”