Planning Commission member Curtis Wilkerson explains the rationale for forming a parks and rec board/commission. / Photo by Katie Kuba

City council to consider creating a parks and rec board this week

BUCKHANNON – City council could vote to form an official parks and recreation board this week.

The agenda item for council’s March 3 meeting, a possible vote to create the Buckhannon Parks and Recreation Board of Directors, comes on the heels of a joint public meeting with city council and the city’s Planning Commission last Wednesday.

Discussion at the Feb. 23 meeting revolved around parks and recreation operations in the City of Buckhannon and considered the merits of hiring a parks and recreation director to improve both recreational facilities and programming.

The public was invited to attend and give input.

Councilman David Thomas and councilwoman Shelia Lewis-Sines at the public meeting Feb. 23. / Photo by Katie Kuba

Although there was some debate about whether the city should hire a director or parks maintenance employees and if those employees should be full-time or part-time, at the end of the meeting, Buckhannon mayor Robbie Skinner said members of council and the Planning Commission appeared to agree that forming an all-volunteer board was the next appropriate step.

“Council will create the board and city council will then appoint members to the board and charge the board with meeting [and advising council] on parks and recreations operations,” Skinner said at the joint meeting. “I think that a board should be formed so this doesn’t just go by the wayside … I think creating a commission or a board that is dedicated to seeing this through is a great first step and that board will meet regularly and similarly to the SYCC will present to city council regularly things that need to be taken action on.”

Skinner said the board will operate much like the Stockert Youth & Community Center Board and council will likely allocate a small startup budget during its 2022-2023 fiscal year budget sessions, which got underway Friday.

Planning Commission President Dr. Susan Aloi explained that results of the Planning Commission’s Buckhannon 2025 strategic plan had spurred discussions about how to enhance the city’s parks and recreational programming. In surveys used to craft the city’s long-term strategic plan, a majority of city residents referenced the need for more recreational opportunities, Aloi said.

That finding prompted the Planning Commission to form a subcommittee and evaluate the city’s six parks. One of the major findings was that an all-volunteer parks and recreation commission could serve as a liaison between community members and city council.

“I really like the model of having a city-appointed commission or board,” Aloi said. “I like the idea of having ongoing community-level input so that the commission could reach out to the people who are living near or using that park. There needs to be a board that organizes all of that and thinks about a plan and a structure and then can be make recommendations to council, so I think that would be a place to start and let them figure out the next steps.”

Curtis Wilkerson, Planning Commission vice president and chair of the parks and recreation subcommittee, said he and other members of the Planning Commission observed that the city didn’t have a “consistent plan or a vision or goal” for its parks and rec facilities and operations.  

Some of the issues the subcommittee unearthed during its review included under-utilization of facilities, a lack of recreational/educational programming, much-needed upkeep, and the fact that that maintenance usually falls, by default, on the already-overworked city Street Department.

“We have pavilions with roofs that are going to need to be replaced, we have tables that tree limbs have gone through, we have horseshoe pits that are broken and have rusty stakes up, we have concrete pieces that are falling apart,” Wilkerson said. “And it’s not the fault of the Street Department, they’ve got streets to take care of.”

Councilman CJ Rylands, who sits on the Planning Commission, said part of the end goal is the lighten the load on the Street Department so it can focus on its main task: maintaining streets and sidewalks.

“Part of what we’re trying to accomplish is to diminish the load on the Street Department so that they can accomplish their mission and at the same time, enhance the capacity of our parks and improve the quality of place, the quality of life for our citizens and to focus on getting more people utilizing these public spaces.”

Wilkerson said parks and recreational facilities are highly correlated to quality of life, which drives economic development.

“You can go after the best professional for fill in the blank – the hospital wants a brand-new cardiac-thoracic surgeon, and the surgeon’s spouse goes, ‘what is it like to live there?’” Wilkerson said. “Anybody who wants to come and work in this community [is going to ask] about the quality-of-life stuff; what there is to do for your kids and grandkids really matters. Economic development is based upon quality of life, and towns that are vibrant in that area are vibrant in economic development as well.”

Rylands said if the city opts to hire a full-time parks and rec director to coordinate and oversee recreational planning and implementation, council needs to define that person’s role carefully.

“Who do they report to? Who guides this person’s activities? Who’s responsible for making sure they’re doing their job? I think we need to be very thoughtful in laying out the framework for this position, for this commission or for this parks and rec board,” he remarked. “We can’t let that person define their own role.”

Councilwoman Shelia Lewis-Sines questioned the wisdom of hiring a director-level position.  

“Does it have to be a director, or could it be an actual worker who does that work?” Sines said. “It’s such a seasonal thing that, if we hired a worker, couldn’t they float and help the Street Department in the winter and help other departments with whatever they need? We need a worker; we don’t need another director.”

Councilman David Thomas agreed, saying, “I don’t want to have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. We need Indians to do the work.”

Thomas also suggested the city evaluate its parks and in-progress projects as a whole.

“Maybe we have too many parks,” he said. “I’ve heard people say there’s a couple of parks that aren’t being utilized much. Should we shut them down and take a look at what we’re doing with the rest of parks? I think we need to look at this in totality and holistically. We have the new building at Stockert, the [Colonial] Arts Center, a lot going on down at Madison Street and Jawbone, the dog park, the Riverwalk and the River. I think there ought to be someone who takes a look at all of this and how we bring it all together comprehensively.”

A couple of community members who attended, seasonal city park attendant Carl Weaver and Park Street resident Robyn Simons, suggested the city utilize volunteers and keep spending at a minimum.

“You don’t have to throw money at everything,” Weaver said. “Use commonsense.”

Simons said the city should instead consider enlisting volunteers to complete deferred park maintenance and maybe only hire a part-time seasonal director.

However, Aloi and city recorder Randy Sanders said the Planning Commission’s vision was broader.

“We’re not looking for someone to just take care of maintenance; we’re looking for someone to have more overarching responsibility for what goes on in the parks, for designing the parks, for planning activities, for monitoring them,” Aloi explained.

Sanders said as it stands, the Street Department is able to keep the parks safe and useable, but not much more.

“I don’t think the intent was just to maintain what we currently have,” Sanders agreed. “I think the intent was to make the parks a valuable part of the community once again and have programming and have an atmosphere that families would then react positively to and then go and embrace the parks.”

“Our goal should not be ‘let’s just try to keep them safe,’” he added. “I think there’s a lot more to this than just maintaining the status quo, but to take it to another level.”

Planning Commission president Dr. Susan Aloi at the Feb. 23 meeting. / Photo by Katie Kuba

Planning Commission member Sarah St. Clair said a year-round position would yield the most fruitful outcome.

“The wintertime or the off-season is when [a proposed director] should be planning,” she said. “They should be coordinating, they should be scheduling, they should be recruiting. They should also be fundraising. These parks are going to take money and while I don’t think our town can fully support the cost of everything we want to do, there are so many grants out there, that if you have a director who’s focused on this all the time, year-round, they can also focus on fundraising opportunities, grant writing opportunities to get the funding that you would need.”

Buckhannon resident John Boskovic said a full-time director, like the position recently created by the Upshur County Commission, could make parks “a really viable part of our daily life and not just an afterthought.”

“These are assets that need to be cultivated,” Boskovic said. “I think we need to un-isolate kids, who, even before COVID, were becoming isolated because of parents’ work schedules, because of disruptions in family life, because of addiction issues and isolation because of a reliance on electronic social media in order to stay connected to other people.”

City public works director Jerry Arnold said if the city hires a parks and rec director, it needs to hire general workers to implement that director’s vision.

“If you hire a director, don’t set that person up to fail, and what I mean by that is you can have all the ideas, all the great plans in place, but if you don’t have the people to make that possible, it’s not going to come to fruition,” he said. “And part-time seasonal employees are not sufficient. A director is not going to solve all your problems – you’ve got to have some maintenance people.”

Aloi said the next best step was for council to form an all-volunteer board or commission, which could then hash out a master plan. City officials agreed that anyone interested in serving on that board should provide a rationale in writing. Wilkerson said members should be representative of a wide variety of demographics.

“I think it’s important to have voices of youth, of senior citizens, of people who accessibility issues and someone from the county board of recreation (Buckhannon-Upshur Parks and Recreation Advisory Board), too,” he said. “It’s just going to make life a lot easier.”

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