It was a sunny afternoon outside the Martin Luther King Center on South 8th Street last Thursday. Kids and parents were shuffling in out for various activities. It’s a typical day of after-school productivity, with the exception of an information table set up near the entry. Marian Doherty, program specialist with Wilmington Parks and Recreation, is one of the folks heading the final information session on a $30.4 million parks bond referendum, which is on this year’s NHC election ballot.
Doherty says they’ve been out trying to educate the community on the parks bond anywhere they can—from area farmers’ markets to school festivals and open houses, as well as public facilities like MLK Center and Maides Park, both among parks bond projects. “These are regular users of the parks, and we definitely want them knowledgeable about potential improvements here,” she says.
For the MLK Center expansion and improvements, $1,830,000 is budgeted. Other existing parks and facilities slated for upkeep and/or expansion include Derick Davis Community Center ($1,580,000), Halyburton Park ($305,000), Wade Park ($85,000), and Greenfield Lake Park ($500,000), to name but a few. Mary Jones is the MLK recreation supervisor and says she’s excited for the prospect of more programming with the addition of a new gym and multi-purpose room.
“Right now the utilization of the gym is totally maxed out,” Jones says. “People call [for use,] and I feel bad because we just don’t have space or room. . . . Especially with the gang violence rising, we need a serious safe haven for the kids.”
The center’s cheerleading commissioner, Marquita Holmes, who is standing nearby, agrees with Jones. “Maybe we could actually get inside the facility,” she quips. “That would really help a lot as it gets darker and cold.”
Historically, parks bonds like these do well on the ballot here. The last parks bond was passed in 2006, which included the Althea Gibson Tennis clubhouse and tennis courts (which will get $40,000 to resurface courts), Olsen Park outside of Laney High School ($2,000,000 budgeted for phase II), five softball/baseball fields, the Cross City Trail ($25,000), and the Miracle League field.
“We were really fortunate the community stepped up to make that happen,” Doherty says. “I think people just want reminders [of the last bond]. . . . Some people want more specifics [and] clarification.”
One inevitable question is how the bond will impact local taxes. Doherty uses the example if a resident owns a $200,000 home, then they’d see a tax increase of about $42 a year, or $3.50 per month. For local writer and resident Clyde Edgerton, he simply wants to better understand how monies will be spent before he casts his vote.
“I trust that city and county officials will honor the needs and wishes of citizens in each of our neighborhoods,” he says. “I hope they will be a role model of willingness to openly respond, plan and fix—unlike a number of our current public school administrators and our school board.”
For former mayor Harper Peterson and resident Diana Hill, there’s a missing piece to one line item—the largest at $20,000,000—in particular: North Waterfront Park. The project includes the development of 6.5 acres of North Waterfront Park for green space, a water feature, gardens, children’s area, and performance area that could accommodate up to 10,000 people. Both Hill and Peterson are concerned about plans for parking—or lack thereof.
“The city’s version of a bridge to nowhere— a park without parking,” Peterson says of the park. “This should be front and center now. Poor planning and fiscal irresponsibility. We ask and require the private sector to provide parking as part of every development plan, and for good reason. Yet, we ignore it when it comes to the public investment.”
Though, there are no line items in the North Waterfront Park site development plans at this time, Dylan Lee of the City of Wilmington’s communications office says one option for area parking could be at the mixed-use area at the foot of Chestnut and Water streets. “One of the nice things about this is the design of it allows for concerts,” Lee says. “The promoters will pay the city good money to use that space and the cost can offset that.”
“There’s always concerns about parking,” Mayor Bill Saffo concedes. “But I still have commentary that we need even more gyms and more fields [in addition to what’s proposed in the bond] . . . so we’re doing what citizens support and what they’ve supported in the past.”
Mayor Saffo says this plan attempts to meet the needs of the community, such as the Soccer and Multi Purpose Fields ($10,000,000), of which they tried to meet with 2006’s parks bond. Saffo says it still fell short to keep up with growth. “Population has grown 26 percent since the last census in 2010,” he adds.
Aside from need and requests for more parks and green spaces from constituents, Mayor Saffo notes the parks bond also ties directly into the initiative of giving Wilmington’s youth more options and activities to “get them off the streets.”
“As you look at these bond projects, clearly there’s new parks, soccer multi-pupose fields—we’re already at a deficit, so it’s a real need in the community,” Doherty continues, “but the other important thing is we’re building these new, but we’re also expanding the MLK Center and Maides Park. . . . You have to take care of what you already have.”
Bond plans and projects are not so easily changed once passed, either. The City of Wilmington has a capital improvements program for large-scale projects, which is more of a tiered approach and a five-year plan. Therefore, if the bond doesn’t go through this November, it doesn’t necessarily mean some of these bond projects won’t happen.
“But it could be a ways down the road,” Doherty clarifies. “You have competing interests from transportation to roads and this and that . . . so, an MLK gym might be a great idea, but guess what? We need to fix this and that.”
“If it fails, the availability of land is almost nonexistent,” Mayor Saffo says. “This may be our last opportunity to get the land because it will probably be developed or bought; the cost to do it later is even more expensive . . . and if we miss this opportunity we’re telling our young people, ‘We don’t have a place for you.’”
Hill—who says she’s never met a parks bond she didn’t like—dismisses aforementioned concerns as a “scare tactic.” She says the idea of “now or never” should not be the case for the MLK Center or other plans for improvement. “There should be some monies in the till that were used to buy a portion of the parking deck that wasn’t/isn’t being used for a park,” she cites. “There is money to upgrade MLK Center and Maides Park. That should have been done long ago.”
For more about the 2016 Parks Bond and proposed projects, on the election ballot now, visit www.wilmingtonnc.gov/parksbond.