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Jonathan Prater pulls his two sons, Branch Prater, 3, and Knox Prater, 5, as he kayaks toward the shore Friday, July 5, 2019 at Chester Frost Park in Hixson, Tennessee. Temperatures were in the low to mid 90s Friday, and many people were taking advantage of the cool water.

Additional trail and pathway connectivity in Hamilton County is the most important need for the future of county parks, according to residents.

That was a key initial finding for the county's first comprehensive parks master plan. An overview of the findings was presented in a public meeting Thursday evening at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The report was largely shaped by more than 800 surveys filled out by county residents and sent to GreenPlay, the company creating the master plan.

"A lot of this idea of trail connectivity has maybe less to do with adding more trails and more to do with connecting people with trails," Greenplay project consultant Dave Peterson said. "It's about connecting people to those trails that already exist."

"When you make your presentation to the county commission, be sure to raise that point several times," Hixson resident and trail organization chairwoman Linda Hixon said. "We do need more help from the county for trails."

There will be a workshop Friday morning for planners to begin using the initial findings to draft the master plan. GreenPlay will present that draft in September or October, and at that point it will be finalized. It will then be presented to a stakeholder group and eventually the Hamilton County Commission for approval.

Fifteen people were in attendance at the meeting. They represented area nonprofits, PlayCore (a Chattanooga-based business that creates playground equipment for clients across the nation), GreenPlay, Hamilton County Parks & Recreation and interested community members.

Notably absent were representatives of any municipality with the exception of East Ridge.

"When we first started ... I had this grand vision of a complete Hamilton County that involved all nine municipalities, and we are not in the current political climate to be able to achieve that," parks and recreation director Tom Lamb said.

The plan will be used 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.

The initial findings presentation outlined current park usage, priorities, recreational activity participation, funding and more.

"Our hope is this develops a vision for the department so they know what the community wants and needs," GreenPlay project consultant Becky Dunlap said.

Five thousand community surveys were mailed, with a 9.3% response rate. GreenPlay typically hopes to receive between 9% and 11%. An additional 395 residents submitted their opinions online. About 70% of respondents use county parks. The largest age group to submit their opinions were 25- to 34-year-olds.

Contact Mark Pace with questions, comments, concerns or story tips at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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