Opinion: New parks plan will be city’s first since the advent of Recreate 2008! in 1998

Staff Photo By Robin Rudd / Mackey's Branch tumbles over stones in front of the oft-used Heritage House in Jack Benson Heritage Park earlier this month.

Remember Recreate 2008!?

That was the 10-year, $65 million parks and recreation plan approved by the Chattanooga City Council in 1998, and was the last parks plan put into place before the current one being formulated by the Tim Kelly administration.

The former plan, now nearly a quarter century old, focused more on recreation centers than parks but did touch on some of the same subjects the plan now being formulated is considering.

Recreate 2008!, created by the Philadelphia consulting firm Wallace Roberts & Todd, recommended Chattanooga have a park within a mile of all areas of the city.

The current plan in development suggests that a city park or trailhead needs to be within a 10-minute walk of 55% of the population. Now, a park or trailhead is within a 10-minute walk of only 35% of the population.

The previous plan suggested that the city faced about a 25% annual budgetary increase in operational spending to maintain its parks and recreation centers.

Current Chattanooga Parks and Outdoors Director Scott Martin said the budgetary increase never happened, which made maintenance issues a weakness in the system. He said no future parks in the city should be added without an accompanying maintenance budget.

On Tuesday, he said in an update to the City Council, deferred maintenance on city parks has reached $179 million.

The bulk of the deferred maintenance, Martin told this page last week, is "the sneaky stuff." Not playgrounds and not necessarily buildings, it includes the likes of roads, curbs and gutters, irrigation systems, lawns and trees that need pruning.

It's the difference "between wanting to hang out there or drive by," he said. "Every park should look like Coolidge Park. Every park should make you feel that good."

Recreate 2008! said Hamilton County would be asked to share in certain projects like the Tennessee Riverpark and Coolidge Park in which they have a stake.

The city still considers both of the expanses among its signature parks, and Martin said as one of six general themes for the parks plan that such large and popular parks would continue to be improved.

He also touched on Enterprise South Park, which is jointly owned by the city and county but programmed by the county. Consideration should be given in using the park for active sports, he said, not just as a preserve for walking and hiking.

The Recreate 2008! plan agreed.

It recommended 10 to 12 athletic fields along with facilities for other sports -- as well as the hiking trails that did come to fruition -- at what was then called the Volunteer Site.

At that time, the site's city and county owners were pondering how the 6,800-acre property should be used. Many recommended the site for employers only; others felt a broader mixed usage was in order. One council woman suggested the site might be just the place for the Chattanooga Zoo.

Then-Mayor Jon Kinsey weighed in by saying he felt the site, which today contains manufacturers such as Volkswagen and the park, shouldn't exclude either employers or playgrounds.

Martin said last week's City Council update was akin to a "teachable moment." Although everyone loves parks, he said, it is incumbent upon him to be "the adult in the room" -- to let the Council and Kelly administration know how much it will cost to maintain what we have and to warn them that "before we start getting carried away" with creating new parks, it's important to "take care of what you've got first."

He and others determined the overall maintenance figure they revealed to the Council after visiting and walking every park and asset and determining their depreciation schedules. They gave the overall condition of the parks a grade of B- to C. Although the $179 million figure was "marginally terrifying" and "would make your head spin," it was less than the nearly $300 million he was expecting.

Nevertheless, Martin said he believes the city has "a chance to get it right," to "do something other cities can't do."

That optimism is predicated by the fact playgrounds in six or seven parks have recently been or soon will be upgraded, by the fact he believes Chattanoogans already have an appreciation for greenspaces and by the fact the city isn't growing too fast for its park infrastructure to catch up.

"The devil's in the details," Martin said. But, he added, "I'm really excited. I'm more fired up than when they hired me for the job."

The final parks plan, after City Council and committee reviews, is expected to be completed in late February.

Unlike the 10-year Recreate 2008! plan, we hope the new parks plan will look much farther into the future, will look much more broadly and will allow the efficient creation of even more parks to draw more Chattanoogans into healthy and active lifestyles.