Get out: Waynesville and Jackson county look to the mountains for parks programming
Mountains and rivers shape the landscape of Western North Carolina, but when it comes to recreation programming, counties and municipalities tend to focus on facilities and league sports. Both the town of Waynesville and Jackson County, however, are working to look beyond the status quo to point people toward the beauty in their own backyards.
“To me, I feel like if we can interest young people, and even senior adults and others, in the opportunities that exist out here, it’s a cleaner way of living and it helps people get in touch with nature,” said Tim Petrea, program supervisor for Waynesville Parks and Recreation.
Petrea’s position is a new one for Waynesville. He came on board in February 2013 to replace a fulltime lifeguard, but Petrea doesn’t spend his time in the pool. Rather, he’s tasked with overseeing Waynesville’s Special Olympics team and running programs such as kids camps for summer and spring break — and getting Base Camp Waynesville off the ground.
Base Camp Waynesville is Petrea’s brainchild, an effort to give Waynesvillians a gateway to the full spectrum of outdoor opportunities the area offers. Since Base Camp kicked off this winter, Petrea has organized hikes, whitewater rafting trips, a bird watching expedition and a tree-climbing workshop. Coming up in May, activities will include a seniors’ jet boat ride at Lake Fontana, hosting a planning meeting for a hiking club, and leading a sampling of hikes.
That’s all part of a goal Parks and Recreation Director Rhett Langston has held since taking the helm.
“Since I arrived eight years ago, I’ve really wanted to get more progressive in utilizing the natural resources we’re fortunate to have in this area,” Langston said. “It’s a gradual process that we try to do more and more.”
When Petrea came on staff, it seemed like the right time to get that process rolling.
“I couldn’t think of a better person to execute the idea,” Langston said. “Tim has a true love and interest in the outdoors and, being a former schoolteacher, the outstanding rapport with children of all ages.”
Outdoor rec in Jackson County
Of course, in Western North Carolina it’s not hard to find people with a love of the outdoors. That reality is a big part of a parallel push to increase outdoor recreation programming in Jackson County, said County Manager Chuck Wooten. The county is in the midst of hiring a position dedicated to overseeing those activities.
“Our focus has really been on recreation centers and the various activities that evolve around those centers,” Wooten said. “As we started looking at it, we realized there was an opportunity there we hadn’t been taking advantage of.”
The county manager pointed to the mountains and rivers surrounding said recreation centers. In October, when long-time Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Carpenter retired, Wooten saw a chance to pursue such opportunities. The open position gave the county a chance to take a hard look at the department’s organizational structure.
Commissioners decided to change one of the two assistant director positions into an outdoor recreation manager position. The department has finished interviews for the position and expects to make a hire in the next week or so.
But enthusiasm for outdoor recreation can extend beyond that designated position.
“We want to increase our outdoor recreation activities and programs and also the facilities, the parks and greenway. Open space and conservation are going to be a big part of that,” said Max Lanning, Cashiers-based program coordinator who has been incorporating an outdoors focus into his own programs since his hire in January 2013.
Lanning, who earned a master’s degree in botany, has kept his schedule stocked with a series of wildflower walks and guided hikes. Coming up, the Cashiers recreation center will offer an introduction to fly fishing workshop and a day dedicated to teaching kids how to fish.
“The staff got excited and embraced this whole concept, too,” Wooten said.
Why it’s important
For Lanning, increasing outdoor recreation opportunities is important partly because outdoor recreation is sometimes more financially accessible than team sports such as basketball or soccer. Some of the activities are free and others charge a small fee, while infrastructure like the soon-to-be-completed greenway allows people to get outside, exercise and enjoy their natural surroundings, all without paying a dime.
“People definitely love to get outside and do things that are free,” Lanning said.
But outdoor programming is also just another installment in a department’s continual evolution toward providing an ever-increasing variety of recreation options, said Waynesville’s Parks and Recreation director.
“It all boils down to growth,” Langston explained. “Our department is growing not just in terms of facilities but also in terms of people utilizing or becoming more involved in our programs and facilities that we have. In order to keep up at that pace, it’s something that we feel like we need to constantly expand upon and take advantage of what we have in this area.”
Every year, the Waynesville Recreation Center gets about 140,000 visitors, and the armory gets several thousand more. The trend is toward more use, so Langston is hoping that expanding to offer outdoor recreation opportunities, in addition to the more traditional recreation options, will help to meet that demand.
For Petrea, though, the value of recreation opportunities is largely intrinsic. Western North Carolina is filled with natural beauty, networks of trails and ample waterways, but some people need a little help to start enjoying the opportunities around them. Sometimes, all it takes is someone to lead the way.
“The biggest thing I can’t stand to hear is ‘There’s nothing to do around here,’” Petrea said. “There’s so much to do around here if we could get out and do it.”