Swain parents want more from recreation center
Several parents made it clear during a recent Swain County commissioners meeting they want to have more recreational opportunities for their children.
What started as a discussion about private vendors selling concession items at the rec department during youth sporting events quickly became an airing of grievances regarding the lack of programming for residents at the rec center.
“Why does our rec department have nothing? They do football and basketball,” said parent Emily Shuler. “Jackson County has 15 programs in the rec program for kids, 13 adult activities and Senior Games.”
Shuler said not all kids want to participate in football or baseball but would be interested in things like soccer, volleyball or other sports that are available in other counties.
Besides a lack of programming, parents also complained about the county rec facilities, including the deteriorating outdoor pool and splashpad for kids, aging bathroom facilities and safety hazards near the ball fields and bleachers.
“The bathrooms are disgusting — I’d rather my kid pee in the pool than go into the bathroom,” Shuler said.
Another mom, who is involved with Dizzy Dean’s youth baseball, agreed that the youth in Swain County should have more recreational opportunities so that they don’t have to travel to other counties.
“If other counties can provide our youth and our seniors with all these programs, why can’t Swain County?” asked Jackie Corn.
SEE ALSO: Comparing recreation in WNC counties
Dizzy Dean’s — similar to Little League — is privately run by parent volunteers but the program uses the county’s facilities and equipment and receives a small monetary contribution from the county.
“Swain County should want our youth to have a better future,” Corn said. “If you don’t build it now you might as well take the interest off that $4 million and build a rehab center and a pregnancy center because that’s where this county is going.”
Corn was referring to the $4 million payment the county recently received as part of the North Shore Road settlement.
Branton Loftis reiterated that the facilities needed some upgrades and a safety hazard near the small ball field needs to be addressed.
“There’s a dead tree that needs to be removed or it’s going to wipe out a whole thing of bleachers,” he said.
Commissioner Kenneth Parton, the only commissioner who still has young children participating in athletics at the rec center, said he agreed that some improvements needed to be made and as a child he remembers there being more options for youth programming in Swain County.
“I know we don’t have a lot of money but we had more when I was a kid,” he said. “People feel like it’s all going downhill.”
Another mother complained about her son’s football team not even having an announcer show up for a recent game, which she said is disappointing for the players and the parents in the stands.
Recreation Department Supervisor Jim Brown said the longstanding announcer at games had retired, but he was open to allowing a volunteer to take over the position. Brown said it was also difficult to get volunteers to run the concession stands during sporting events. Because volunteers tend to unreliable for concessions, he said the county has to pay employees to ensure someone is there to sell food and drinks.
“I think there’s a disconnect between policy and leadership,” Loftis said. “There’s an assumption we all know all of this. I think it would behoove commissioners and the rec director to create some kind of PSA to clarify these issues.”
Shuler added that any announcements regarding the rec department needed to be better advertised through social media.
Commissioner Danny Burns suggested that administrators create a breakdown of where the recreation money is spent to give to parents and also survey the property for hazards.
What Swain lacks
Offering more recreation isn’t as simple as many parents would like to think — cost and a lack of participation have always been an issue when it comes to expanding programming.
Swain County’s 2017-18 budget for recreation was about $450,000 and much of that goes to pay salaries and benefits for three employees, facilities upkeep and maintenance, paying referees and purchasing equipment. Parents do pay a fee for their child to play a sport at the rec center, but Brown said a $75 fee to play football doesn’t go very far.
“Some parents ask what does that $75 fee cover for youth football — but really you’re just paying for a chance to participate because that doesn’t cover all our expenses,” he said. “But we know we can’t charge a kid $300 — sometimes more — but equipment is so expensive, so that’s as low as we can keep it.”
One helmet can cost $200 and the rec department also supplies the jerseys, pants and mouthpiece.
“We provide everything but cleats and socks,” Brown said. “The jersey is theirs to keep, but we try to reuse most of the other equipment.”
Swain County Manager Kevin King said comparing Swain’s rec center programming with Jackson County was like comparing apples and oranges. Jackson’s population is triple the size of Swain and Jackson’s tax base is also much larger.
Swain is a large county, but it’s sparsely populated and has a small tax base because the federal government owns a vast majority of the land. So while it’s easy to look over to Jackson County and see all the recreational opportunities available, residents have to take into consideration the county, the town of Sylva and the town of Cashiers all contribute to recreational needs in Jackson while the county government bears most of the burden in Swain. But when looking at what each county spends on recreation programming per person, Swain is still behind compared to Jackson and Macon counties.
“It’s a challenge — it’s always been a challenge to get the programs we need, but we do the best we can,” King said. “The thing about a small community is we have to collaborate with other agencies and other entities to have more programming.”
With limited resources, King said the county’s rec department only steps in to run a program if no other agency is managing it and the residents want it.
“If the school system is operating a program, we don’t want to compete against them for kids — same goes for the extension office,” King said. “We want to foster and collaborate with them to make sure the program is successful.”
The Swain rec department doesn’t even manage the youth baseball league Dizzy Dean’s. A parent organization runs the program and the county provides the facilities and equipment.
Brown said Swain partners with the Cullowhee Recreation Center to host the Senior Games. Partnering with Jackson just makes sense because the number of participating Swain seniors has decreased in the last several years.
“We’ve had low participation — a lot of seniors who used to participate are aging out so it just seemed like it worked better to partner with Jackson,” he said.
As far as more programs for adults and elderly, Brown said the Swain rec department used to offer different walking and guided hike programs, but again low participation caused those activities to go by the wayside. Brown said the rec department has had discussions with 4-H Club and the extension office about getting those types of trips going again.
Despite the financial challenges, Swain County officials are open to suggestions for improvements and hope more parents will get involved when it comes to the future direction of recreational services.
“At this point, I’m not sure what other programs people want to see — no one has called to say they want other programs,” Brown said.
Besides youth baseball and football, the rec center also offers swimming lessons in the summer and summer day camps for children. While the county doesn’t run much programming, it does allow the schools to utilize the fields and gym for soccer and volleyball. The Smoky Mountain Roller Girls also utilize the indoor gym twice a week for their practices. Brown said the facilities offered by the county are definitely well utilized throughout the year.
King said the commissioners are getting ready to put out a recreation survey for residents to fill out. The survey results will help the county update its five-year parks and recreation plan.
“We want to be responsive to the citizens so if there’s programming that needs to happen, we want to make sure our citizens get it,” he said.
King added that the county has to get at least 10 percent of the county population to respond to the survey to even be eligible for the PARTF grant.
“We hear you but we need your help to get this accomplished,” Commissioner Ben Bushyhead told parents at the meeting.
Updating the five-year master plan is also a requirement in order for the county to apply for funding through the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. Counties applying for funds through PARTF can receive up to $500,000 for recreation needs. Swain County has its eyes on making much-needed repairs and improvements to the community pool.
The pool at the rec center was opened in 1978. The county has made piecemeal improvements to the facilities over the years but getting the PARTF grant would mean a big makeover to keep the pool in good shape for years to come.
“Basically the pool has had no major cosmetic changes since then — we’ve replaced filters, did some plumping work, installed a new gutter system,” Brown said. “It had diving boards at one time but the insurance is so pricy they were taken down.”
The county has also added slides and shelters around the pool and installed a splashpad feature for younger children. Most recently the county spent money installing a new pool liner and upgrading the chlorination system to operate through a computer system, which Brown said helps to keep a correct balance of chemicals in the pool while cutting down on chemical costs.
“Running the pool can get expensive — it takes a lot,” he said. “Then we have to hire Red Cross trained lifeguards to run it when it’s open.”
If the county does secure the grant — the same one Canton received for its pool rehab project last year — Brown said the county would look at making it more user friendly and easier to maintain. The main thing will be fixing the cracks that are forming underneath the liner to prevent water loss in the pool, but other modifications could include changing the swimming lanes in the deep end and making the shallow entrance into a beach entry.
Brown said those are a couple of suggestions, but the results of the survey and the results of the PARTF grant application would probably determine which direction the county goes.