Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Pender County to invest $29M in parks and rec over next decade

Master plan unveils 10-year guide for improved facilities, programs

Pender County’s master plan includes improving equipment and facilities at existing parks, as well as adding new locations. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

PENDER COUNTY — It’s been 12 years since Pender County adopted a parks-and-recreation long-term plan. As the population has steadily grown, the county is looking to implement a new master plan, with recommendations estimated to cost $29.2 million.

With help from consultants McGill and Associates, Pender County parks and recreation and planning and community development staff have drafted strategies to guide recreation initiatives countywide through 2032. In the works since July 2021, the master plan — highlighting short-, mid- and long-term goals, as well as ongoing needs — will be presented to the board of commissioners Mar. 14 for final approval, with adoption slated for April.

According to N.C. Office of State Budget and Management (NCOSBM), Pender County’s population is expected to inflate by 19.8%, or 11,950 people, by 2030. NCOSBM mainly attributes the projected increase to migration, with the fastest growing areas over the last decade being Hampstead and Rocky Point.

As a result, additional space is needed to adequately accommodate the population. National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) guidelines found Pender County deficient in 93.25 acres of district parks, 3.3 acres of community parks, 16.5 acres of neighborhood parks, and 7.5 acres of mini parks. From 2015 to 2020, North Carolina ranked Pender County 78th out of the 100 counties in residents per park acre.

The state’s Eastern Region Military Growth Task Force also noted an additional 8 to 10 acres of neighborhood parks, 13 acres of community parks and 27 acres of district parks are required to address the projected military-induced growth in the county.

Communities were evaluated together based on proximity to one other, resulting in eight sectors: Surf City and Topsail Beach; Scotts Hill; Hampstead; Burgaw and St. Helena; Rocky Point and Long Creek; Willard, Watha and Penderlea; Currie and Atkinson; and Maple Hill.

To address the needs of those living in the area, the master plan steering committee utilized multiple methods to gauge community feedback from a diverse range of voices. A community survey opened for two months, plus there were eight public meetings held, in addition to implementing five focus groups and 10 stakeholder interviews.

“Public input is one of the most important parts of this plan,” Pender County planner Vanessa Lacer said at a Feb. 1 planning board meeting. “Staff was diligent in going out in the community and getting folks to talk about what they want and need.”

Unrepresented and under-represented communities were considered, she added, including people with disabilities and Maple Hill residents, the latter of whom have no parks and recreation programming.

The largest age group in the county is 35 to 54, with the fastest growing at 65 and older; by 2030, one in five North Carolinians will fall in this age range. The master plan accounts for age-specific facilities and activities as well.

It outlines four main goals: maintenance, improvements and expansion of existing facilities; increased organizational capacity and efficiency; amenities; and programming and services.

Pender Memorial Park is often at maximum capacity, so the county plans to create a new 60-acre park nearby with additional amenities. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Maintain, expand and improve facilities

Based on Pender County’s 2018 Community Health Opinion Survey, the lack of recreational facilities ranked number five among issues affecting residents’ quality of life.

To meet these demands, the master plan calls for the creation of new parks, to disperse recreation countywide and ease the overuse of existing locations. Research also found it was vital to continue improving ADA accessibility and creating adaptive initiatives, including transportation.

Survey respondents were asked to prioritize a list of amenities and also include the geographic location where those amenities would be best served. Top requests included multi-use trails, additional youth and other group-specific programs, and more athletic facilities. Close seconds were for a splash pad, new playgrounds, nature preserves, picnic shelters and event space.

One district park is planned for 60 acres off U.S. 117, just north of Burgaw. This facility will supplement the 27-acre Pender Memorial Park, which regularly reaches max capacity. While still in the preliminary planning stages, possible amenities include an off-road bike pump course, disc golf, pickleball courts, adventure play equipment and a fitness parcourse, a trail with exercise equipment and obstacles.

The second district park will be in the southern portion of the county, near Scotts Hill — a popular draw for developers. This is an area that has been identified as one with a high-population growth. According to the master plan, multipurpose fields, hiking and biking trails and picnic tables are slated for this location.

Park services are lacking on the west side of the county, so the master plan will incorporate three community parks in that region. Possible amenities include loop trails, fitness stations, water play, court games and educational signage.

Long Creek, Malpass Corner and Canetuck community parks are all slated to open in the coming years. Canetuck will also offer water access, another high priority by survey respondents. A neighborhood park is slated for Maple Hill, a historically underserved area for recreation in northeast Pender County.

The master plan also calls for improving the current conditions of parks. A Capital Improvement Plan outlines the need to seek additional land and provide necessary improvements and expansions.

Pender County currently maintains seven parks over 136 acres: Hampstead Annex, Hampstead Kiwanis Park, Holly Shelter Shooting Range, Pender County Courthouse Square, Pender Memorial Park and Penderlea Community Park.

Each of the parks has its own issues and upkeep, improvements and repairs are planned to increase security, fix drainage issues, replace aging equipment, add educational and informative signage and identify adjacent property for expansion. Details on the recommended improvements for each park are detailed in the plan.

More multi-use paths, such as the Osgood Canal Greenway and Urban Trail, was a top requested item from community feedback. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Increase capacity and efficiency

The parks and recreation department has determined it needs additional employees to adequately support its future plans.

Based on NRPA staffing guidelines, the minimum number of full-time staff necessary to support community recreation is 5.1 per 10,000 residents. Based on Pender County’s population of 60,203, 37 full-time employees are recommended, but there are only 22 on staff.

Over three years, additional positions will be hired — including various coordinators for special events, marketing and athletics, seasonal summer camp staff, a chief range safety officer, park custodians and maintenance crew. The long-term plan for growth would require more hires, especially with ongoing maintenance. The county currently manages 36 rental facilities, with only six staff responsible for upkeep.

To assist current employees, the master plan encourages increased partnerships to co-sponsor events, private partnerships for development of new facilities, and management partners to assist with maintenance of properties until more staff are put in place.

The county currently partners with roughly two dozen organizations ranging from athletics and schools to nonprofits and local community groups. By increasing collaboration, the county has the opportunity to add more events and amenities.

The master plan recommends additional athletic facilities as well as specialized sports programs for youth, adults and those with disabilities. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

Incorporate diverse programming

In 2021, Pender County parks and rec hosted 26 events and recognized the need to incorporate even more.

While each method of public input resulted in varying data, the top requested programming was youth enrichment, such as field trips and STEM classes, youth summer camps, outdoor concerts, farmers market, open gym and partnerships with schools, local church and arts councils.

Additional items on residents’ wish lists were movie nights, sports clinics, running/walking programs, adult exercise classes and holiday events.

To determine where best to include additional programming, the community survey asked respondents to indicate how far they’d be willing to travel to access programs. Forty percent said they would travel 60 to 10 miles; 26% said they would drive 11 to 15 miles; 20% would only be willing to drive up to 5 miles, and 14% would be willing to go more than 15 miles away.

There are significant gaps for residents outside the core of municipalities to reach existing recreation areas, especially children and adults who do not drive. The master plan helps identify where recreation is most needed based on population and current lack of accessibility.

Some of the focus groups expressed interest in increased soccer, basketball, theater, adaptive athletics, and multigenerational programs. Additional top priorities included offering more inclusive services for individuals with disabilities and autism, as well as educational activities and art-related classes.

Funding opportunities

Based on NRPA’s 2021 Agency Performance Review, recreation departments serving populations of 50,000 to 99,999  nationwide — as is the case for Pender County — are spending between $58.77 and $166.17 per capita. That’s an average of $101.65 per person annually.

To meet that demand, the county will need to reevaluate its annual operating budget and incorporate alternative funding sources. Some options include:

  • Seeking local gifts and donations of land, labor, materials or cash
  • State and federal grants
  • Property and sales tax revenue
  • General obligation bonds
  • Fee simple purchase (buying land and owning the rights to use and develop it)
  • Fee simple purchase with lease back or resale (meaning acquiring land and then re-selling it or leasing it)
  • Life estate (being deeded land following the death of the property owner)
  • Easement (compensating a property owner for the privilege to use land)

Pender County plans to keep its user fees in place for rental of facilities and fields. Revenue from user fees help offset operation and administration costs.

Right now, non-residents pay slightly more than residents, which the county intends to retain.

More than one-quarter of residents surveyed said they were willing to pay a participation fee for certain activities and facility uses to offset costs. 

“Additionally, 23% of survey respondents selected voluntary development contributions as a means to finance new recreation facilities, indicating a possible market for donations or sponsorships,” the plan noted.

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