outdoors 062319 greenway 1

Improvements to the city’s networks of greenways and trails are one of the top priorities in the long-range plan for parks and recreation.

Roanoke’s new parks and recreation master plan, which the Roanoke City Council will consider Monday evening, aims to address decades of deferred maintenance of city facilities and an awareness of the city’s evolving demographics.

The council will take up the plan after a public hearing during its 7 p.m. session.

So-called “big moves” include major and long overdue renovations and upgrades to the city’s recreation centers and pools, and a broad demand for more trails and greenways and connections between them.

Other moves reflect an attempt to fully recover from recession-era cuts to funding and staffing.

“We got whacked,” Parks and Recreation Director Michael Clark said of budget contractions during the economic downturn. “We’re still climbing out of that hole.”

The city contracted with Indiana-based PROS Consulting to produce the plan for $159,964. The same group worked on two updates to the master plan the new plan will replace.

The conclusions and recommendations in the plan were driven largely by a statistically valid survey with 377 responses from a group that closely reflects the demographic makeup of the city, Clark said. That survey accounts for 60 % of elements that influenced the plan’s priorities. Analysts identified overlaps between items respondents identified as both unmet needs for facilities and programs, and those that are important. Other elements include public meetings, a non-scientific survey anyone could fill out online, demographic data, and the experience and expertise of the consultant regarding national trends and other data.

Among the priorities are projects that Clark said are long past due, such as improving the city’s handful of aging recreation centers.

The newest, in Eureka Park, was built in 1965.

“And when you go into Eureka Center, you walk back into 1965,” Clark said. The aging facility is a hindrance to a popular and successful after-school program there, he said.

Ideally, Eureka and other facilities like it, at Preston Park and in Norwich, would be tripled in size with new amenities and uses available to multiple generations of users, from kids playing sports to seniors holding meetings and crafting.

Clark said he’d like to add a new center somewhere in the southeast quadrant, likely in Fallon Park, and improve other smaller centers, such as in Grandin Court and Garden City.

The city’s two pools, at Fallon and Washington parks, are also on the list for deferred maintenance, with a plan to upgrade one that would remain as a competition pool with some family play elements, and make the other more of a family water park.

All of those projects also reflect a need to provide equitable facilities in more economically challenged neighborhoods to meet the needs of the city’s significant low-income population.

Other items reflect the city’s aging population. Data in the report indicates that more than a third of the city’s population will be seniors within a little more than a decade.

The needs and desires of that group are reflected in facilities like more walking trails, indoor walking tracks and activities such as adult fitness programs and adult day trips.

While much of the city’s marketing focus for tourism and economic development has been on attracting young professionals to a vibrant city rich in outdoor opportunities, Clark said, “We’re going to continue to age and be more of a retiree destination as opposed to a young professional destination.”

Two other key items in the plan involve increased parks and rec staffing and enhanced funding for operations and capital projects, including from private sources.

When the recession hit more than a decade ago and the city pulled at its purse strings, the parks and rec budget and staff took a hard hit , as it did across the country, Clark said. Roanoke’s funding in that area has been slower to recover than in some places.

In 2007, Roanoke’s parks and rec budget was $6.3 million Clark said. This year, it’s $5.9 million. Pre-recession staffing was 76 full-time employees or equivalents, he said. After adding four new positions for the current year, the total parks and rec staff is 67.

In studies of peer departments from Roanoke County to Asheville, North Carolina, to Bend, Oregon, Roanoke stood well above the others in areas such as park acreage miles of trails, according to the master plan, but lagged in last place on staffing and funding.

“We’ve added a lot of stuff,” Clark said. “We just haven’t added the resources to take care of it.”

On the funding front, Roanoke also fared poorly compared to peers on recovery of costs through fees. Clark said many of the city’s fees hadn’t been updated to reflect inflation for decades, and few charged more to non-residents.

The city council already has acted to update the parks and rec fee compendium to increase fees and charge more to non-residents.

One aspect the benchmark studies and surveys both reflected consistently is that the start of the city’s parks and rec offering is its system of trails, especially the greenways.

Trails rated as highly used also saw high demand for further investment, especially connecting neighborhoods to trails and trails to each other.

More investment in trails is a high priority in the plan because, like the rec centers, they reach a racially and economically diverse audience.

“You build facilities that cater to as many people as possible,” Clark said.

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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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