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Contributed Photo by city of Athens / This Aug. 13, 2020, photo shows Heritage Park's newly-renovated pavilion, part of work at the park now boosted with a $500,000 Local Parks and Recreation Fund grant for more work to bring the 1976-era park up to modern standards.

A city park in Athens, Tennessee, got a $500,000 grant for upgrades to bring parking and sports facilities up to American Disabilities Act standards and build a new walking trail, according to state and local officials.

Heritage Park on South Jackson Street in the south end of town is just a block off of state Highway 30 and lies within easy reach of several residential areas. It's one of eight city parks and recreational facilities in Athens.

The grant — part of $6.87 million awarded across the state from the Local Parks and Recreation Fund and Land and Water Conservation Fund programs — will fund architectural and engineering work related to the facility and parking upgrades and construction of an 1,100-foot-long, hard-surface walking trail that is also to be ADA compliant, according to a press release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The grant requires a 50% local government funding match.

Athens Parks and Recreation Director Austin Fesmire said the funding will help the city get the 46-year-old facility up to modern standards and complement work at Heritage Park the city has already performed as part of its master plan. The park currently has a new basketball court and its pavilion has been renovated, he said Friday in a telephone interview.

Fesmire said the park dates back to 1976 when the state helped construct the park as part of the bicentennial projects being funded around the state to celebrate America's birthday. In 1976, there were no ADA guidelines so the park has a lot of ground to make up, he said.

"It's going to be super nice," Fesmire said Friday in a telephone interview. "We're putting it back to better than it was in 1976."

The baseball field is worn out from decades of use, he said, and renovation plans call for its demolition and construction of a new, youth-sized field.

"The ball field is going to be taken down and put back new," he said. "One of the best things we're doing is fixing all the ADA issues."

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ADA Renovation conceptual site plan

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Fesmire said community surveys showed residents want more areas to walk, and the city has more land than it's using currently at Heritage. New plans for the baseball field create more room for the trail along Walker Branch, a small creek the trail will track alongside.

The park was built on the former site of a drive-in movie theater, and the ground there was very hard from years of moviegoers, Fesmire said.

"I believe it was called the 'Starlight Drive-in' then," he said.

Work is needed to make the soil more natural, he said.

The park has benefited from the work already done, and Fesmire said further improvements will only bring more visitors.

"The pavilion rentals are one of our highest activities," he said.

People rent them for events such as birthday parties, graduation celebrations and family gatherings, he said.

"Once we redid the pavilion and the basketball court, we saw a lot of neighborhood use coming back," he said. "My philosophy is, if we keep it nice, people will keep it nice."

Fesmire said nearby residents in the area have told him of their childhood memories of public facilities.

"They remember walking across the street and playing basketball and having to be called home," Fesmire said. "That's what a little neighborhood park's all about."

City Manager C. Seth Sumner said it was an "exciting coincidence" the city is celebrating its 200th year in 2022 at the same time it is entering the next phase of the park's rehabilitation and expansion.

"The park was completed in 1976, hence the name Heritage, in honor of our nation's 200th anniversary," Sumner said Friday in an email. "Over the past two years, this historic neighborhood park has new energy being infused with the pavilion being rehabilitated and the tennis courts transformed into basketball courts, as requested by citizens."

Along with the upgrades, the $1 million in combined grant and local funding will also go toward stabilizing the streambank.

"This next phase will greatly benefit citizens and guests, both young and mature and will invite more people into this historic space to enjoy nature and sport," he said.

State officials echoed city officials' sentiments.

"Local leaders need resources to provide recreational activities for their communities, and this is a way to help make it happen," Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Deputy Commissioner Jim Bryson said in the release.

"These renovations at Heritage Park will allow the whole family, regardless of physical disabilities, to enjoy time together at this park by increasing its ADA accessibility," state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said in the release.

Rep. Mark Cochran, R-Englewood, also cheered the funding in the release.

"I thank Athens Parks and Recreation for their partnership in making Athens a safer, more accessible and healthier community for our citizens," he said.

Other city parks in Athens include Athens Regional Park, Cook Park, Denso Eco Park, Ingleside Recreation Complex, Market Park Prof Powers Park and Veterans Park.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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