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Jessica Hindman, right, and Rachel Broome portage their water craft to the water Wednesday evening at Chester Frost Park to enjoy a late-day paddle on Chickamauga Lake.

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Parks system planning

Hamilton County is in the midst of creating a master plan for its parks system, marking the first comprehensive overview as leaders look to get increased public input and open more funding opportunities to plan for the future of public space in the Chattanooga area.

The plan will be conducted by an out-of-state company with input from area residents to determine how to best manage the park system. It will decide how funding should be used, where future projects should be conducted, the state of current equipment, where repairs are needed and give parks leaders a full inventory of park equipment.

"We are creating a road map for the future of Hamilton County Parks and Recreation," parks Director Tom Lamb said. "It is based on a tremendous amount of public input, community preference as well as market trends and what all we have in place now to help us make some allocations for the future and provide us with a way to move forward and meet the community needs."

The county's parks and recreation department oversees three regional parks, 16 community parks and partners with athletic leagues at seven of those parks. It also maintains other community spaces.

There have been vast changes in how people use public spaces in the county during the past decade, Lamb said, pointing to the growth in popularity of disc golf, dog parks, open-water swimming, the resurgence of camping and the addition of large outdoor events. The plan will look at those changes and determine the best way to use parks in the coming years.

"We want to try and get ahead of that so we can make sure that we are setting a course to meet the needs of the community and keep up with new and developing ways people use our spaces," Lamb said.

Beginning Monday, focus groups will be held with a broad base of recreational users and other area residents. The groups will provide input on how they use parks and what they want to see done in the coming years. The groups will consist of users from across Hamilton County and take place in separate commission districts to get a wide range of voices.

Greenplay LLC, the Colorado company hired to conduct the master plan, will lead the discussions and conduct the master plan process. The county awarded the company the bid in February after sending out a request for proposals. The Greenplay contract costs $129,999. The company is required to deliver the master plan no later than Aug. 30.

A community input meeting will be held at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Benwood Auditorium (room 230 of the Engineering, Math and Computer Science building) April 18 from 6:30-8 p.m. The meeting is free and open to the public.

"By developing a master plan for our parks we will be better able to optimize the natural resources of the Riverpark, Enterprise South Nature Park, Chester Frost Park and our community parks for the benefit of our residents and visitors who may come to play, but could choose to live, work and retire in Hamilton County," according to a statement from Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

The belief is the master plan will lay the groundwork for park planning for decades.

"Ideally, what [Lamb] can do is identify key stakeholders so he can tap into them, getting regular feedback," UTC associate professor Andrew Bailey said.

Bailey is a member of the local team overseeing the project. He has conducted economic impact studies for climbing in Chattanooga, Ironman, RiverRocks and the Chattanooga Zoo. One of his classes produced a parks report for Hamilton County in 2012 with preliminary work on what residents used, what they liked and what they wanted to see.

The current master plan will allow the parks service plan to be easily updated in the future without having to pay for a large-scale project, Bailey said. It also will give Lamb that network of stakeholders to lean on for future decision making. Groups like the Southeastern Climbers Coalition, Chattanooga Track Club and others regularly get feedback from members using different aspects of parks. The idea is for Lamb to be able to lean on the master plan and those groups when making future decisions.

The plan could ultimately be fiscally beneficial, Lamb said. Grants funders often ask for such plans to determine if individual projects fit into the overall vision of a parks service. The plan also gives the parks department a road map as it pitches projects to the Hamilton County Commission.

"We don't want to just go to the commission and say something is a good idea," Lamb said. "We want to show the demand and how it meets our community's needs."

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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