Countryside Park

Countryside Park opened in early 2014 on what used to be a municipal golf course in northwest Roanoke. The 6,000-square-foot playground includes handicapped accessible play areas and was part of a larger effort to open the former golf course to recreational use.

Roanoke’s parks and recreation leader rolled out a list of “big moves” to the Roanoke City Council on Monday that include building new recreation centers and converting one of the city’s pools to a family water park over the next 10 years.

Council members responded cautiously, calling the ideas in an updated master plan “ambitious.”

“If the vision doesn’t scare you a little bit, it’s not visionary,” countered consultant Neelay Bhatt of Pros Consulting.

Bhatt and Parks and Recreation Director Michael Clark updated council members on the first new master plan for the department in 18 years during Monday’s council meeting.

The so-called big moves include renovating and expanding two of the city’s few rec centers, probably Eureka Park and Preston Park, into more appealing multi-use, multigenerational facilities, and building two new ones elsewhere in the city. One would likely be at Fallon Park in southeast Roanoke. No cost estimates were included for any of the ideas.

Either the Washington Park pool or Fallon Park pool would be converted to a water park while the other would remain a competition pool.

A new skatepark, long on the wish list of local skateboarders, is also on the list, proposed for Wasena Park.

The plan also calls for bringing staff levels at last back to what they were in 2008, before the recession. The department is still down 13 positions, most of them in maintenance, from 10 years ago, Clark said. Meanwhile, the city has created new demands with the creation of Countryside Park, the renovation of Elmwood Park and the addition of 14 more miles of greenway trails.

For funding, the plan calls for identifying or creating a dedicated funding stream, and also boosting money taken in by the department by users who pay for facilities and programs. Nationally, Bhatt told council members, parks departments cover 26 percent of their costs that way. Roanoke County covers 49 percent of its costs. In Roanoke, the figure is 8 percent. They aim to lift that to 30 percent, but it can’t happen unless the city invests in facilities and staffing.

Clark and Bhatt positioned the proposals as engines for economic development, job creation and boosting quality of life for Roanoke residents.

While outdoors marketing that draws people to the valley’s mountain biking and hiking trails drives tourism, they said, quality everyday recreation facilities in neighborhoods will get the next generation of Roanokers to move here.

The plan also aims to rectify decades of slim to no investment in parks and recreation facilities.

The city’s newest rec center, in Eureka Park, was built during the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1965. “It’s like walking back in time,” Clark said.

When Clark came to Roanoke in 2007, he was lured by a $33 million capital plan to pay for a massive public/private facility at River’s Edge Sports Complex and a major recreation center in Fallon Park.

The recession wiped out those plans, along with lots of other planned spending in the city.

Since then, the city has returned to capital spending, renovating and replacing fire stations and libraries. Clark told the council it is disheartening for his staff to see new facilities for other departments, while recreation facilities lag behind.

His department’s operating budget is still $2 million below what it was before the recession, while most other departments are back where they were, and city spending is above pre-recession levels.

No council member questioned or criticized any of the proposals or the need, but the scale and likely costs seemed to leave them wary.

The council annually struggles with slowly recovering local tax revenues and projections that show balancing the budget won’t get easier over the next several years.

“This is all so very ambitious,” Councilwoman Anita Price said.

Councilman Bill Bestpitch used the same term.

Price said in an interview she’d like to identify easier and less costly projects that would improve service to tackle first.

“What’s the place to start from? I don’t know the answer to that.”

Bestpitch said the same, and returned to something Bhatt said in response to the same question.

“It’s no different than eating an elephant,” he said. “You do it one bite at a time.”

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Matt Chittum covers Roanoke City. A Roanoke native, he’s been at the Roanoke Times for more than two decades, having overcome an inauspicious start with a part-time clerical job.

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