Thursday, September 1, 2016

Perception, Politics, and Parks

When people think of “parks” the first things that come to mind are likely open spaces, athletic fields and playground equipment - lots of public greenery.  However, to make all of these things possible there’s another kind of public “green” that’s also needed in large quantities – money.  One thing you can also be sure of is that wherever prioritizing and spending public dollars is concerned, political maneuvering is sure to follow.

On August 8th at a combined meeting of the Mecklenburg County parks department, and town staffs and Park-Rec committee members of the towns of the North Mecklenburg towns,  Michael Kirschman, Deputy Director of the Mecklenburg County Park and Rec Department gave a Powerpoint presentation on the current state of priorities for the county’s parks projects.

Based on conversations with multiple people in the room, there was a fair amount of disappointment as it sunk in the long planned Regional Recreation Center on County owned land at 73 and 115 would not be the first one built by the county. That’s despite the North Center being sold during the 2008 election cycle as the top priority center for the 2008 Parks bond money.  The bonds passed countywide with 61.68% support including majorities in all North Mecklenburg precincts.

Instead, it looks like the first regional center will be built in East Charlotte.

While the perception may be this seems like a  broken promise to North Mecklenburg voters who supported the 2008 bond, the truth is a little more complicated.  In response to a question about the subject, Kirschman had this to say.

“The fact that funding was allocated for the design work to begin on the East Center has not changed the status of the North Center. Since 2014, it was known that funding for the North Center would not be until sometime after FY18. This is similar to the 20 other P&R projects that were ranked back in 2014, but that did not rank high enough to be funded in the current capital program that runs through FY18.”  Kirschman goes on to say  “at this time nothing has changed. The North Center is still unfunded until after FY18. The county will embark on a capital prioritization process later this year for capital projects to be funded FY19 and beyond. Once that is completed, we will potentially have a better idea of when the North Center (as well as other P&R projects) may be funded.”

While all of that may be true it still doesn’t explain how/why the East Center is moving forward ahead of the North.  That’s where the “politics” comes in.  District 1 County Commissioner Jim Puckett was able to shed some light on the situation.

According to a conversation with Puckett, Parks projects all over the county were delayed due to the Great Recession.  That included the planned rec centers as well as phase 2 of the 90 acre Eastway regional park which would have added amenities to the existing park started in the early 2000s.  When things finally got moving again as the economy improved, it made more sense to roll the Phase 2 of Eastway and the East Rec Center into a combined effort.  Besides making economic sense East Charlotte residents had been waiting for enhanced Parks & Rec facilities even longer than North Meck has been waiting for its new Rec Center.  Helping set that new plan in motion also involved continuous effort by East Charlotte residents and neighborhood groups.

So, what are the lessons North Meck residents can take from all this?

First, approving bonds does not guarantee you’ll get what you think you are voting to approve.  Bonds typically authorize spending for categories of things, not specific projects.  Second, if citizens don’t like how a plan is proceeding, then get organized and get active.  It’s been 8 years since the 2008 bond referendum.  Maybe a rec center costing tens of millions isn’t the best use of money?  Maybe that money would be better spent on something like more greenways which have become more and more popular in recent years here in North Mecklenburg?

Just a thought...

This post first appeared in this week's Herald Weekly at

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