Columbia Making Key Additions, Renovations at Many City Parks

The State
June 21, 2012

A building blitz is going on at one-quarter of the city of Columbia’s parks.

City officials are upgrading and repairing 11 of the city’s 54 parks, spending $6.9 million — almost as much as it costs to run the parks system each year.

Half the total investment is going into Earlewood Park, near the intersection of North Main Street and Monticello Road. For the nearly $3.4 million being spent, Earlewood later this summer will become the headquarters for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. It also will have a new community center and upgraded playground and tennis courts. Work is scheduled to be completed in August.

New or improved parks 

Columbia is spending $6.9 million on parks this year. Here is an overview of the plans.
•  $3,371,678 for a Parks and Recreation headquarters, a community center and playground and tennis court improvements at Earlewood Park
•  $1.72 million for a new saltwater pool at Maxcy Gregg Park
•  $980,000 for 14 new courts at Columbia Tennis Center
•  $355,500 for Rosewood and Valencia parks, for parking lot, playground and lighting upgrades in the Rosewood neighborhood
•  $179,200 for tennis court resurfacing at Woodlands Park in eastern Columbia
•  $135,000 for 100 new lights at downtown’s Finlay Park
•  $104,706 for a new playground at Pinehurst Park off Two Notch Road
•  $10,300 for resurfacing tennis courts at Mays Park off Trenholm Road
•  $10,000 for a dog park at Emily Douglas Park in the Shandon neighborhood
•  $10,000 for resurfacing tennis courts at Hampton Park off Garners Ferry Road
•  $6,850 for resurfacing clay courts at Southeast Park off Garners Ferry Road
SOURCE: Columbia’s Parks and Recreation Department

“This particular year, 2012, is the largest year in which we’ve done that many projects in a given year,” said Hattie Bing, deputy parks director and a parks employee for 25 years.
Newly appointed parks director Jeff Caton said the investment reflects the commitment of city leaders to recreation. “My hope is that it’s a springboard to continued attention in our parks system,” Caton said last week.

Ellen Cooper, president of a coalition of six downtown neighborhoods that stretch from Finlay Park to Earlewood Park, said the investment will help a long-neglected part of town.

“That’s the major park in this area,” Cooper said of Earlewood Park. “There really wasn’t much down there for lots and lots of years. I would think it would have a great impact.”

There are years the parks department has spent more money one or two big projects, such as construction of the $8.5 million Drew Wellness Center or the Southeast tennis facility, said assistant city manager Allison Baker.

But the range of improvements on this year’s list is unrivaled, Bing and Baker agreed.
After Earlewood, the next biggest-ticket item is a $1.72 million replacement for the leaking pool at Maxcy Gregg Park, near the University of South Carolina campus. Altogether, taxpayers will invest $2.1 million in the pool and park, which celebrated its centennial earlier this year. Improvements have been under way since last year, and the pool is closed for the summer for the work.

Also near USC, a remodeled Columbia Tennis Center opened this month with nine new hard courts and five new clay courts at a cost of $980,000, according to a tally compiled by the parks department at the request of The State newspaper.

Parks finances

The city’s parks have operated on a steady $9 million annual budget in recent years.
The $6.9 million for improvements comes from several sources, mostly the city’s capital improvements budget and leftover money from a $20 million, 2004 hospitality-tax bond issuance.
All of the projects are to be completed in 2012.

Federal funds and about a quarter-million dollars in private contributions round out the rest. About $250,000 is coming from SCE&G, an insurance company and Shandon residents, Baker said. Those groups contributed, respectively, toward improvements at Rosewood and Valencia, Pinehurst and Emily Douglas parks.

Few public recreation systems generate profit, Caton, said previously served as parks director at the Charleston Naval Weapons Station and Spartanburg County Parks before being hired in Columbia in March. The ones that do usually have high-draw attractions such as water parks or they are on military bases where recreation programs include nightclubs, theaters and golf courses.

But the city’s parks system brought in at least $3.1 million in revenue between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2012. Most of that was from fees paid to the Drew Wellness Center as well as those for summer-school, after-school and cultural arts programs, the department’s figures show.

Since 2008, the city’s annual expenditures for recreation have generally been about $9 million, including the $9.4 million budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30, according to figures provided by the city’s finance department.

The department’s payroll has dropped by 19 positions since fiscal 2008, to 247 jobs, the department calculates. Full-time positions have been reduced by eight. Still, the proportion of the department’s expenditures that went to salaries and benefits have stayed around 50 percent, or $5 million, of each year’s budget, parks department figures show.

The department has come under fire for its largest financial drain — the $500,000 it loses yearly in operating the Drew Wellness Center on Harden Street.

The center, with its indoor pool, workout rooms and outdoor facilities, costs $1 million to operate and brings in an average of $424,000 in membership and user fees. Membership grew by 165 through May of fiscal 2011 compared with the previous fiscal year. But daily use by nonmembers dropped by 3,305 during the same period.

Other parks bring in some money, but many bring in no money at all.

Finlay Park, arguably the highest-profile park in Columbia, has seen its budget drop by about $166,000 to $445,806 during the five years examined by the newspaper. Yet the revenue it generates rose by about $22,500 from $4,130 in fiscal 2008 to $26,620 as of May 31, the department said.

The cost of operating the Maxcy Gregg pool dropped by $10,000 from 2008 to 2011, the last summer the pool was open. Revenue from the pool held steady those four years at an average of about $25,100.

Riverfront Park, which meanders along the Congaree and Broad rivers, is the city’s most used park, seeing about 6,500 visitors this fiscal year through May, Baker and Caton said. It brings in no revenue and costs the city $475,156 to operate through the end of May, the department’s figures show.

The city pays about $980,000 for 22 park rangers who work in Riverfront, Granby and Southeast parks. The ranger corps is limited to those parks because they are paid from hospitality tax revenues, which must be spent on ventures that attract tourists.

A new master plan

Consultants are working on a new plan for the city’s parks system.

It’s the first in-depth look at residents’ recreation needs since 2006 when city staff proposed a $1.7 million upgrade to 14 parks. But as the city’s finances fell into the red because of overspending in recent years, work was completed on four of the 14 parks at a cost of $295,000, Baker said.
The new master plan is to be presented to City Council in January.

In the fall, the consultants plan to mail a questionnaire to a random sampling of city residents, asking for their assessments of the park system and Columbia’s recreational needs.

Neither Baker nor Caton would discuss the plan in detail, but its recommendations will include building the city’s first water park in Southeast Park, which, at 63 acres in lower Richland County, is the area’s largest, Baker said.

Caton said his view is the greatest need is at neglected St. Anna’s Park, which is in the Lyon Street neighborhood, as well as the aging Finlay Park, which hosts a range of community events and festivals.
Finlay needs work on its fountain, pond, sidewalks and shrubbery. The city also must find ways of dealing with the numbers of homeless people who are there a great portion of the day.
“That is the park that I feel people judge our parks by, and it needs attention,” Caton said.

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