WILMINGTON — Pickleball, a larger budget and more land are top priorities for the community according to an analysis of Wilmington’s parks and recreation system.
Consulting firm McAdams spent two years gathering information to evaluate the amenities, condition and access to the city’s parks and recreational spaces. The city maintains more than 744 acres of parks, a nature center, cultural center, recreation centers, athletic fields and more than 32 miles of trails.
McAdams presented its findings and suggestions to council Dec. 6.
To gather feedback used to make recommendations, McAdams director of civic spaces Rachel Cotter engaged nearly 2,000 residents through a community open house, two types of surveys, focus groups and an advisory board.
Cotter reported 69% of the community seem “very or somewhat satisfied” with the value of services the city provides. However, only 30% of surveyors admitted to using the parks regularly.
Cotter said the city needs to acquire additional land and expand its offerings — adult athletics, action sports, fitness and wellness, dance and performing arts — to reach the majority of residents. Yet, that also requires a larger budget.
To achieve the goals of offering more recreational options, and across additional locations, the plan proposes the city acquire 77 acres of land for park development.
“This is aspirational,” Cotter told council. “That ability to acquire land is limited by cost and availability, so we’re suggesting, over time, updating the level of service if land acquisition is unrealistic. The shift could be to maintaining parks and facilities at a higher level and reimagining them over time.”
Providing more indoor space for all ages is also recommended, with the need to find property to build on or renovate.
Council member Clifford Barnett asked if partnering with the public schools was an acceptable solution for more space.
“A partnership with schools, universities and private facilities is always a consideration,” Cotter said. “But there’s a balance between how much control you want over the facility. There’s enough demand in Wilmington that having an independent multigenerational center is the best way to address those needs.”
In response to council member Luke Waddell’s inquiry about the success Cotter sees with other municipalities that face land constraints, she said they do. However, she also noted there are pros and cons involved.
“There is less upfront investment, but you also have to share the facility,” she explained. “There needs to be some tight partnership agreements in place so there is a mutual benefit and the ability to meet the community need.”
Cotter added, typically that route is considered a short-term solution, while trying to secure land or renovate an existing building is the long-term goal.
“This is a 10-year plan, so there are short-, mid-, and long-term recommendations,” she said.
Based on national averages and a formula for “level of service” using Wilmington’s population, it’s recommended the city acquire 283 acres for parkland.
However, as noted in the proposal, “Wilmington is constrained by a limited availability of land overall, lack of reasonably priced property for sale, and development site suitability as a coastal city.”
According to New Hanover County, there is roughly 24,000 acres, or 18%, of all land left undeveloped. Wilmington comprises 33,998 acres of land, which is 26% of the county’s total.
Thus, Cotter’s suggestion is 77 acres.
To incorporate more open space, the city’s updated land development code from December 2021 encourages all development plans to include 10% open space. The change resulted from a 4,000-resident feedback where individuals expressed a desire for elevated parks and creating more walkable opportunities.
The only currently undeveloped land owned by the park system is being converted into the 66-acre nCino Sports Park for athletic fields, located near the Duke Energy Sutton Steam Plant,.
Residents said in the parks survey their top locations for new spaces are an area in central Wilmington just north of Oleander Drive and the area just south of Greenfield Park
Cotter noted under-utilized space, such as at Northside and Empie parks, could be developed, as opposed to finding unused land. Also reimagining space and amenities — upgraded equipment, implementing more activities and programs — could be a short-term goal that would elevate services.
For fiscal year 2022-2023, Wilmington allocated nearly $10 million to parks. That’s between 7% and 8% of its total budget, less than the recommended national average, 10% to 12%. In fact, the parks and rec budget is $2 million less than the National Parks and Recreation Agency’s median for similar size communities.
The city is also recovering revenue — compared to expenditures — at a slower rate than the national average. Based on Wilmington’s expenses, the parks and rec’s “cost recovery” is roughly 12% to 14% over the last five years, well below the 20% national average.
Cotter’s plan recommends implementing fees that would cover 16% of operational costs, a formula the city doesn’t currently have in place.
Other options to increase revenue sources include increasing corporate sponsorships, like the nCino Sports Park under construction. nCino signed on for $1.3 million to be the title sponsor for 17 years, paying $125,000 annually over a 10-year period. Other ideas include crowdfunding, starting a parks foundation, forming a “friends” group, hosting fundraisers or increasing user and membership fees, such as at the golf courses and fitness center, venue rentals and special-use permits.
Improving and expanding its parks system could also open up the city to qualify for more state and national funding sources.
While parks and recreation plans are typically developed once every 10 years, according to Cotter, this is the city’s first “robust” systemwide proposal. Wilmington has faced 8.4% of growth over the last decade, and is steadily increasing at a rate of almost 1%, or 1,087 residents, annually.
Wilmington is forecast to be home to 127,409 people by 2031, noting the need to increase opportunities for health and wellness — the community’s number one value noted throughout engagement sessions. The proposal suggests adding 10 miles toto the city’s dedicated 30-plus miles of trails
Feedback also referenced inequitable conditions and locations of the parks — most concentrated in the western side of the city — and a desire for more outdoor adventure and multigenerational facilities.
Cotter’s proposal involved expanding diversity among amenities, including additional splash pads, inclusive playgrounds, sensory gardens, and ropes courses.
Pickleball was the number one request among the community. The proposal notes Wilmington has the capacity to accommodate more courts. The city currently has 10 shared tennis-pickleball courts and six designed exclusively for pickleball.
Council members will vote to adopt the plan on Jan. 10 and staff will begin working on implementation.
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