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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Art Thatcher, with GreenPlay, presents the final master plan for Hamilton County Parks and Recreation at the McDaniel Building on Monday, March 9, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Greater trail and pathway connectivity, maintenance of existing parks and increased accessibility are the top priorities for the Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Board as it seeks approval of its final master plan.

The plan, which was presented in broad terms to members of the county commission, the county mayor and other officials Monday morning, is the product of more than a year of research into the needs of the county's 18 parks and recreational facilities.

"Some parks we will be improving on what's already there and just bring the standards up, some properties may require more or different amenities based on what's there and what the needs are," Parks and Recreation Director Tom Lamb said. "As we move forward, there will be updates, but this is the basic framework we want to work in."

County commissioners soon will be asked to approve the plan, based off months of community input and more than 800 survey responses that indicate the greatest needs.

"The largest part of the process is information gathering," said Art Thatcher, a principal at GreenPlay, the consulting firm hired by the county. "Talking to the community, reviewing all of your documents and looking at the community's needs is done and we've shared our findings, so now it's time to introduce the master plan."

Connectivity or expansion of greenways and trails, increased accessibility to parks for all citizens, accessibility improvements at parks for those with disabilities, and completing deferred maintenance to improve and standardize quality across facilities ranked the highest among community concerns.

While specifics about projects, costs and a time frame were not shared at the meeting, the four commissioners present seemed to latch onto the priorities outlined, specifically accessibility.

Since the plan will include near-term, short-term and long-term ideas based on as much as eight years of planning, Lamb said, the commission will be asked to vote as a means of aligning priorities rather than approving specific projects.

"What we're doing with this is not asking anyone to commit beyond adopting the master plan, which doesn't mean committing to a dollar amount or even a timeline to spend any kind of money," he said. "But what you'll be asked to approve is a master plan, which means that we have a framework going forward."

According to Lamb, this kind of broad plan adoption helps sort the department's priorities rather than "randomly" assigning resources to projects or parks each year.

"This way we have a plan based on priorities and real data," he said. "This lets us plan better."

On top of providing the obvious services of parks, project leaders hope that outdoor improvements will yield more social and economic impacts for the surrounding community, as well.

"A lot of the needs and demands for services from parks have changed and increased," Lamb said. "We're now going to try and shift parks away from simply a public funding conversation and try to focus on economic, environmental, health and social values they provide to the community."

Part of that initiative is the county looking outside of public resources to achieve better parks through engaging community groups, municipalities and other stakeholders in the planning, funding and other aspects of the master plan.

According to Lamb, 27 organizations interested or invested in the parks in some way have participated in the public input stage of the project.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or at staylor@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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