Jackson County is crafting a new long-range recreation master plan to set priorities and guide spending for its parks, open spaces and recreation centers during the next five years.
But, the process can be a tug-of-war between residents with varied interests, each advocating for their favorite pastimes — soccer versus softball fields, an indoor swimming pool versus greenways, a skatepark versus tennis courts. It can also be a balancing act for county recreation staff trying to delegate limited resources among competing goals.
“Take me out to the ballgame,” is how the old song goes. But the question for Macon County residents in coming years may be “which one?”, as county commissioners lay plans to purchase an expanse of land that would be big enough for eight new fields fit for America’s favorite pastime.
A riverside park in Swain County was plastered with graffiti two weeks ago, with several cans of spray paint unleashed on the public outdoor recreation area.
Nothing went un-tagged, even the trees were spray-painted at the Old N.C. 288 park, where picnic tables, a shelter, boat launch and fishing docks overlook the Tuckasegee River as it flows into Lake Fontana.
Macon County is poised to begin major renovations to its pool at Veterans Memorial Recreation Park, including extensive upgrades to the locker rooms and the addition of water play features in the kiddy pool.
The $600,000 project will consist of three parts — revamping the pool itself, renovating the pool house and installing a new floor area around the pool.
With a steady flow of noisy cars and chatty pedestrians zooming through the Western Carolina University campus, Kyle Coleman straddles a tiny rope, ignoring the commotion and focusing on the task at hand.
The vandalized, charred restrooms in the Waynesville Recreation Park will soon get a long-awaited facelift.
A million acres of national forests sounds like a lot, and indeed it is. But consider the 8.6 million people who visit the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests every year and those vast green swaths that checker any map of Western North Carolina don’t seem quite so big after all.
Waynesville leaders have committed to foot the bill for the long-held dream of a skateboard park — and it will receive help from an unexpected place.
After years of pinning their hopes on grants and private fundraising that only partially materialized, town leaders have now decided they must move forward with the construction of a public skate park or kill the idea all together. The town board discussed what to do about the skate park at a daylong annual planning session last week. And, fortunately for local skateboarders, the town has said it will fund the project no matter what.
“I sort of like the idea of being able to hang our hat on (the skate park investment),” said Alderman Wells Greeley. “We are going to have parents who will bring their kids over to Waynesville for the day. This falls in the category of what I call good growth.”
Alderman Gary Caldwell has been advocating for a skateboard park for 15 years and was the most vocal board member when discussing the skate park last week.
“I know I am asking a lot,” Caldwell said. But, Caldwell said he wouldn’t stop lobbying for it.
“It’s not a dying issue,” he said.
Plans for the park continually stalled during the past decade as the town struggled to find financing for the project.
“I think it’s something that has been wavering too long,” said Alderwoman Julia Freeman.
Freeman said the town should support projects that benefit kids and get them active.
That’s exactly what the town did in 2010, when it put up $30,000 to hire a consultant to design a skate park in collaboration with ideas from local skateboarders.
The price tag to build a skate park was pegged at $325,000. The town has amassed almost $137,000 toward the cost: a $60,000 grant from the N.C. Parks and Rec Trust Fund, a $20,000 grant from the Waynesville Kiwanis Club and another $40,000 committed by the town itself.
With blueprints for a skate park in hand, the town hoped it would kick-start fundraising, but only $5,000 in private donations has been raised in the past year.
That leaves the town $190,000 short to fund the project.
If the town continues to postpone the project, the cost will inevitably increase with inflation.
“The longer the delay, the higher the price — for the same thing,” said Alderman LeRoy Robinson.
A facilitator from the Southwestern Commission who was running the town’s planning meeting tossed out the idea of scaling back the project and thereby reducing the cost. But, town board members did not seem receptive to that idea.
“If you scale it back, you are going to reduce the challenge, and that is part of the draw of something like this,” Robinson said. “If they don’t feel it is a challenge, they will be back on the street.”
Skateboarding on town sidewalks and most streets is illegal, and violators could be fined $50 or, even worse, have their board taken away. But, that doesn’t mean kids aren’t doing so when no one is watching.
“That has been a major issue,” Caldwell said. “It’s a nuisance.”
The park will give those kids a free place within walking distance of downtown to skateboard legally.
The design for the skate park, developed by Spohn Ranch Skateparks from California, includes bleachers for spectators, at least four ramps and a raised platform with rails, among other features.
“To be honest with you, I’ve been trying to do this forever and ever, but I never envisioned it to look like this. This is amazing,” Caldwell said.
Although the town is building the skate park, it will not staff it, limiting its liability in the event of an accident. Once the park is complete, the town could host competitions there, which would draw visitors and their checkbooks.
As the Waynesville town board grappled with where it would find $190,000 to fund the remaining balance of a skateboard park, it realized somewhat accidentally it was staring a new source of revenue in the face.
At the same meeting where the skate park was discussed last week, the town also took up the issue of whether to start charging fees for controversial sweepstakes machines as several other towns in the region do.
The board agreed in an epiphany moment that recreation would be an appropriate use the new income.
It would likely not be enough to fund all that is needed, however. Maggie Valley and Canton currently tax the sweepstakes machines in their respective towns. Maggie collects $8,250 a year, while Canton rakes in nearly $32,000 each year.
If you can’t beat ‘em, then you can at least benefit from ‘em.
Waynesville officials are considering joining the growing ranks of towns that impose fees on businesses that operate sweepstakes machines, a recent reincarnation of the previously outlawed video gambling.
“This board has always taken the position that one, these things are illegal; and two, we are not going to tax something that is illegal,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway during a long-range town planning meeting last week.
The controversial machines have been through an “Are they? Are they not?” legal battle during the past few years as state legislators continue to try to outlaw sweepstakes machines and as proponents of the contraptions continue to find loopholes in the law.
“We’ve been back and forth on this a number of times,” Galloway said.
However, with no end in sight, Waynesville has decided to jump on the bandwagon. If they are going to exist anyway, why not benefit from them?
“There are folks out there that are going to find their way around (the law no matter what),” Galloway said.
At the same meeting, town leaders were grappling with where they would find money to build a skateboard park. During their talks about the sweepstakes machines, they realized they could kill two birds with one stone.
Aldermen decided to move forward with fees on sweepstakes machines to fund the skate park and other recreation initiatives.
“I think the idea of funding recreational activities would be appropriate,” said Alderman LeRoy Robinson.
The discussion led board members to another question: How much can the town charge?
Maggie Valley and Canton currently tax the sweepstakes machines in their respective towns. Both demand $2,500 for the first four machines and charge $750 for each subsequent machine. Maggie collects $8,250 a year, while Canton makes in nearly $32,000 each year. The town of Franklin makes $10,000 a year.
Galloway said that Waynesville will likely charge similar amounts. But, it could see higher benefits given the town’s larger size and potentially larger establishments.
A sweepstakes poker café opened on South Main in June 2010, and recently, two people have come into the police department asking for permits to start operations with as many as 40 to 60 machines — meaning that the new fee could be a boon for the town.
“According to Canton and Maggie Valley, they are standing in line to register machines,” said Bill Hollingsed, Waynesville’s chief of police.
No machine owners would be exempt from the new tax; no one will be grandfathered in. Waynesville will issue decals, which people can display on their sweepstakes machines, indicating that the device has undergone the proper inspection.
“They (machine owners) will not argue with that,” said Mayor Gavin Brown.
While the fees could be a boon, it’s unclear just how long- or short-lived the fees could be. The sweepstakes machines could be outlawed, this time for good, once an appeal works its way through the state courts.
The General Assembly first banned video gambling in 2007. It didn’t take long before so-called “sweepstakes” cropped up as an alternative. Lawmakers viewed the sweepstakes as a reincarnation of video gambling under a different name, designed to circumvent the previous ban. So, the General Assembly went back to the drawing board and passed another ban in 2010 aimed at putting sweepstakes cafés out of business as well. But, lawsuits challenging the ban have allowed the games to continue.
“They found one judge in Greensboro, I think, who found one part of the law and said ‘Well, no, maybe this is not illegal,’” Galloway said.
The ambiguity, meanwhile, has left local law enforcement officers caught in the middle and confused about whether sweepstakes machines operating in their counties are illegal or not.
“The video poker law is unenforceable,” Hollingsed said. “It puts us in a bad position.”
Any gambling machine connected to the Internet is caught in limbo, and law enforcement officials cannot fine or arrest their owners without fear of being held in contempt themselves.
“It is very frustrating for us, I assure you,” Hollingsed said.
The only machines that are definitely illegal are stand-alone devices, including the Lucky Seven and Pot O’ Gold, which are not connected to the Internet.
“Those machines are clearly still illegal,” Hollingsed said.
A discussion regarding the fate of old restrooms at the Waynesville Recreation Park has prompted town officials to take another look at its recreation master plan.
The recreation advisory committee will not just look at renovating the run-down and often vandalized restrooms but also consider the “wider use of that area,” said Assistant Town Manager Alison Melnikova.
The town wants to replace the old restrooms located between the Waynesville playground and tennis courts off Marshall Street. The brick bathhouse dates back to the town’s former outdoor pool, which was bulldozed 10 years ago.
The restrooms have been vandalized several times over the years, and despite frequent cleanings of the facilities, the inside of the restrooms were usually trashed with graffiti and occasionally the sinks and fixtures were ripped off the walls. The state of the bathrooms have been a source of complaints from the public.
In May, arsonists set the restrooms on fire. The town received about $97,000 in insurance money as a result. It could go a long way toward renovating the restrooms and adjacent maintenance storage.
“With some work, we feel that it is possible that the building might be converted for year-around restrooms and that perhaps the other space could be renovated and used for storage or even meetings for clubs or groups connected with various recreation programs,” Town Manager Lee Galloway wrote in a report for the board of aldermen earlier this month.
The town board decided to hold off on moving ahead with renovations to the restrooms, however, and instead revisit long-range plans for the park through the recreation master plan.
Currently, a chain-link fence surrounds the restrooms, and the town has put out port-a-johns for people to use instead.
The town’s master plan was created in 2006 and details possible improvements to Waynesville’s parks. The plan would turn the area near the dilapidated restrooms into a putt-putt course and indoor tennis facility.
The parks and recreation department plans to hold a public forum early next year to discuss the master plan and possible updates to the town parks system.
“The park has looked like that, as you see it, for at least 10 years,” said Rhett Langston, executive director of the Waynesville Recreation Center. “It’s certainly nothing due to lack of planning.”
However, the parks and recreation is not designed to earn much money, Langston said, and a good portion of the department’s budget has gone toward building and running the new recreation center, including purchasing new equipment and replacing the roof.