Park places

Park places

Shortly after voters approved a 2.53-mill property tax in 2004 to fund a $70 million building program for the parish’s recreation department, then-Superintendent Mark Thornton wanted to see “a lot of early completion of projects” called for in the BREC master plan.

But nearly six years later, just three of the 12 signature parks are completed and open to the public. Three more parks are scheduled to be finished by the end of this year, and four others are in various stages of construction.

Those parks that have been completed have won rave reviews, and BREC officials say they’re pleased with the progress they’ve made implementing the Imagine Your Parks plan.

“I feel like we’re going along at a good pace,” says Assistant Superintendent Ted Jack, who oversees the building program.

But some taxpayers are growing impatient, and they say a 25% completion rate isn’t terribly impressive six years into the program. At least one former BREC commissioner agrees.

“It does bother me that here we are six years into this, and they sold bonds so we could get the money to move on this, and it hasn’t been done,” says Carroll Breeden, who was a BREC commissioner from 2000-06. “I’m not saying there’s been any misuse of funds, but when you say you’re going to do something with tax dollars, you’ve got to do it.”

BREC officials concede that construction is taking longer than they initially hoped. But they say damage from two hurricanes, post-Katrina cost increases, and difficulty identifying and acquiring sites for some of the parks have made delays inevitable.

“Stuff came up that was beyond our control,” says Bert Neal, who was BREC’s head of recreation when the tax was passed and now serves as a BREC commissioner. “I know some people are probably upset it’s taking so long, but to get everything done that we promised, we had to go a little slower.”

A lot was promised in Imagine Your Parks, specifically 12 signature or community parks that would be strategically located throughout East Baton Rouge Parish. The idea was to create a model system that would put every parish resident within a 10-minute drive of a major park with green space and state-of-the-art recreational facilities. Some of the projects involved thorough overhauls of existing parks; others were to be developed from raw land.

The issue was not terribly popular with voters, in part because just months earlier they’d renewed another millage to fund BREC’s $40 million capital improvements plan, whose projects would be implemented simultaneously with construction of the signature parks. BREC commissioners also were divided on the new plan and tended to generate controversy, which led to mistrust among voters. In the end, the 20-year tax to fund Imagine Your Parks passed by 1,800 votes.

BREC administrators were eager to get started on the projects. They sold $40 million worth of bonds to raise cash so they could begin work on several projects simultaneously. It wasn’t a bad idea, and it would’ve worked, except for several unexpected problems.

First, Hurricane Katrina struck southeast Louisiana in August 2005. That put everything on hold for several months while the parish dealt with evacuees, traffic jams and the long-term consequences of the storm. Then, the price of construction labor and materials dramatically increased.

For BREC, that meant a 20% to 30% increase to costs associated with Imagine Your Parks projects. As a result, some projects were scaled back, and others were put on hold.

“We saw how much materials and labor were going to cost us, and we had to step back and let some of that high tide pass,” Neal says. “In the end, it really did save lots and lots of money. But that’s really the main reason it’s falling behind now.”

In fall 2008, Hurricane Gustav dealt another blow to the plan. One of every three trees in East Baton Rouge Parish was destroyed, and BREC sustained more than $4 million in damage to its parks and facilities. Though the Federal Emergency Management Agency ultimately covered 90% of BREC’s costs, the cleanup lasted for several months.

“If we hadn’t had any of that, we’d probably have three or four more community parks open by now,” BREC Chairman Bill Benedetto says. “It’s hard to say.”

Given those circumstances, BREC officials say they’re proud of where they are today.

Three signature parks are finished and open to the public: City-Brooks Community Park, which cost $7.5 million and included a complete overhaul of the historic, 9-hole golf course; Anna T. Jordan Community Park in Scotlandville, which cost $1.95 million; and Howell Community Park in north Baton Rouge, which cost $2.76 million.

Three other parks are scheduled for completion by the end of the year. Forest Community Park, on South Harrell’s Ferry Road in the eastern part of the parish, should be finished this fall. The overhaul has cost $5.27 million and includes a renovated tennis facility that will open next month, ahead of the park.

The first phase of Zachary Community Park, on La. Highway 964, should be completed later this month or early next month. The first phase, which cost more than $2.8 million, includes all park amenities except the recreation center, which is scheduled for construction next year.

One of the more noteworthy parks in the plan, the Perkins Road Community Park, is scheduled to open on Oct. 16. The site has been converted into an extreme sports park complex, including a BMX track, skate park and rock-climbing tower, at a cost of more than $5.1 million.

Of the other six parks outlined in Imagine Your Parks, four are in various stages of construction. At Greenwood Community Park in Baker, the multi-purpose center is under construction and site improvements are under way, with a spring 2011 completion date. Highland Road Community Park also is expected to be finished next year; the park has remained open throughout its overhaul, with improvements taking place piecemeal.

North Sherwood Forest Community Park is open on the site of the former Federal Sharp Station Depot, but work has been slow. BREC officials say it has been hampered by the fact that FEMA, which previously owned the warehouse on the property, still uses the facility. No date has been set for completion.

The $6.6 million Family Aquatic Center at Independence Community Park also is under construction. The facility, which is scheduled to open Memorial Day 2011, will include water slides, a lazy river, splash pads and sand volleyball courts.

“There’s been a change in aquatics over the years, and most of our BREC pools were built in the 1960s or 1970s,” Jack says. “Kids aren’t playing in those anymore. This park brings it to a whole new level.”

The final two parks in the plan arguably give critics the most ammunition when they complain about the pace of progress in realizing Imagine Your Parks. Hooper Road Sports Park, which will be the primary community park for Central, is scheduled go out on bid. The project has a slower timetable because BREC didn’t acquire land for the park until spring 2009.

“When you’re going to acquire new land, it’s hard to find people who want to sell,” BREC Commissioner Bettsie Baker Miller says. “Locating and paying for property has been very difficult for us.”

That’s also the reason no site exists for Northeast Community Park, which is planned for the northeast part of the parish. BREC officials continue to search for an appropriate, affordable location.

Assuming BREC stays on its current schedule and completes three more signature parks this year and at least three more next year, Imagine Your Parks will be 75% complete within seven years of the election. Still, critics say that rate falls short of what voters were told in 2004.

Breeden recalls a timeline that Thornton presented at a meeting of BREC commissioners. The timeline called for the completion of most parks within five years.

“I don’t know if it was an official timeline,” Breeden says. “But it was a goal that Thornton had.”

BREC officials say there never was an official timetable for all projects to be completed. They say that rushing the projects would not be in the best interest of the agency or taxpayers.

“There’s a problem with going too fast, because you start getting bad-quality work,” Jack says. “I’ve gone around the country looking at parks, and they may have the same amenities, but if they don’t have the right design they don’t work. And if you rush you end up with something that doesn’t work.”

Ultimately, a more useful question to ask is not whether BREC is moving quickly enough, but whether taxpayers are getting what they want. Anecdotal evidence would suggest they are. Detailed plans for the parks were put together with considerable input from the community, and BREC officials say they constantly receive positive reactions from park users.

“I get a lot of feedback from people who really like what we’re doing,” says Benedetto. “People love City Park—it’s a home run—and Howell Park, too. That kind of feedback lets you know you’re going in the right direction.”

But anecdotal evidence is easier to come by than hard data. Though BREC has some statistics on usage, those numbers are not put into context or measured against what other cities are doing, a shortcoming that frustrates at least one BREC commissioner.

“It’s very difficult to get data,” Miller says. “I constantly ask for data to benchmark better how we’re doing so we can see how we compare to other systems similar to ours.”

That’s important not just in terms of the Imagine Your Parks plan, but in connection with BREC’s other parks, programs and facilities. Does the agency, for instance, really need seven golf courses when usage at golf courses nationally is down, and when the public is clamoring for more walking and bicycling trails that connect parks and neighborhoods throughout the metropolitan area? And are the agency’s facilities and programs as effective as they could be, relative to what comparable cities are doing?

“I want to know what they’re doing in San Antonio and St. Paul,” Miller says. “Is there a way to get southern averages for systems like ours, so we know how we’re doing?”

Benedetto acknowledges that some commissioners would like to see more data. But, he says, he believes the community is pleased with what BREC is doing.

“While we don’t have the exact numbers and figures, we get a good indication from the public on how they feel about these facilities,” he says. “People are using our parks and enjoying them.”


Anna T. Jordan Community Park
Location: Stilt Street
Size: 40.2 acres
Status: Open
Defining characteristics: Ball fields, playground, recreation center, swimming pool, tennis courts

City-Brooks Community Park
Location: City Park Avenue
Size: 147.5 acres [City Park]; 5.65 acres [Brooks Park]
Status: Open
Defining characteristics: Historic 9-hole golf course, dog park, tennis center

Forest Community Park
Location: South Harrell’s Ferry Road
Size: 114.3 acres
Status: Under construction; fall completion date
Defining characteristics: Ball fields, dog park, playground, recreation center, soccer fields, tennis center

Greenwood Community Park
Location: La. Highway 19, Baker
Size: 390 acres
Status: Under construction
Defining characteristics: 30-acre fishing lake, 18-hole golf course, 18-hole disc golf course, hiking trails, model-boat launch, tennis courts

Highland Road Community Park
Location: Highland Road
Size: 144 acres
Status: Under construction
Defining characteristics: Ball fields, disc golf course, observatory, playground, recreation center, tennis courts

Hooper Road Sports Park
Location: Hooper Road, Central
Size: Not available
Status: Design work complete
Defining Characteristics: Ball fields, fishing lake, nature trails, soccer fields

Howell Community Park
Location: Winbourne Avenue
Size: 114.5 acres
Status: Open
Defining characteristics: Ball field, 18-hole golf course, sand volleyball courts, swimming pool, tennis courts

Independence Community Park
Location: Independence Boulevard
Size: 96 acres
Status: Family Aquatic Center scheduled to open April 2011
Defining characteristics: Aquatics center with water slides, a lazy river, splash pads and sand volleyball courts; ball fields, botanical gardens, children’s forest, model airplane field, theater and cultural center

Northeast Community Park
Location: Central
Size: Not available
Status: No site has been selected or acquired
Defining characteristics: Not available

North Sherwood Forest Community Park
Location: North Sherwood Forest Drive
Size: Not available
Status: Partially under construction
Defining characteristics: Ball fields, fishing lake, indoor playground, fitness room, virtual park, walking track

Perkins Road Community Park
Location: Perkins Road
Size: Not available
Status: Under construction; October completion date
Defining characteristics: BMX bike path, climbing wall, skateboard park, velodrome

Zachary Community Park
Location: La. Highway 964
Size: Not available
Status: Under construction; September completion date
Defining characteristics: Not available


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