The future of city recreation was laid out during a special meeting Tuesday night, one that includes focusing on youth athletics and field renovations and moving away from expending time and resources in smaller programs that could be used toward improving the city’s “flagship” Royal Lane Park.
City manager John Connet said recent developments within City of Clinton Recreation presented an opportunity for city staff. Recreation director Judi Nicholson abruptly resigned last month, with Connet citing “philosophical differences” between Nicholson and staff as the reason for her departure. The athletic director position and an office position are also currently vacant.
“This is a good opportunity for us to have a complete evaluation of our department, very similar to what we’ve done the last six months for our fire department,” said Connet. “It gives us the opportunity to step back and really look at our recreation program. And, I have to be honest, we haven’t been providing top-notch level of service that I would like for us to provide. I’m not blaming it on anybody … but we want to evaluate it and really try to look to the future in how we want to develop our program.”
The city manager said he constantly hears that people want the program to be like it was when Walker Bellamy was director. However, times have changed. Bellamy had a brand new facility, and those facilities have now aged.
“The truth of the matter is it can’t be just like with Walker,” said Connet, “but we want to leave it up to Walker’s standard.”
He said a recreation program in transition offered time for introspection and discussion.
“This gave us the opportunity to open the discussion with Council to let you know what our goals and mission are, and see if you agree with that and feel like we’re going in the right direction,” said Connet. “I think our mission is to focus on every child, not just the top athletes. We’ve got some things we need to do at Royal Lane, but it’s still a flagship part of our system and we need to find the resources to do some renovations and bring it back up to its glory. We’re looking for opportunities to improve it.”
As the city looks at its mission, goals and the renovations it wants to bring to Royal Lane, Connet said staff is examining how it should efficiently run the department and where efforts should be focused.
“Staff’s position is it should predominantly be focused on youth athletics. That is the largest number of citizens we serve,” said Connet. “At least 75 to 80 percent of our program surrounds youth athletics, so we need to really focus on that core service and make sure we are doing a good job and putting a good product on the field. That being said, as we shift our focus, there may be smaller programs that we’ve been doing that we may no longer need to be doing. Some programs serve a very small segment of the population that we may need to let somebody else do, or develop partnerships.”
Connet cited wellness programs, saying while providing space for those who want to participate in such programs was important, staff efforts may be better dedicated elsewhere. The Center for Health and Wellness is a quality facility and the city could partner with the hospital and the center’s staff to help provide wellness activities at city facilities. Services do not need to be duplicated, he said.
He said maintaining and enhancing programs and activities at the Sampson Center, Bellamy Center and the various parks across Clinton was a goal of city staff. Connet said he, assistant manager Shawn Purvis and city staff are exploring avenues to reorganize, where funds can be taken from the operational side and put it in the capital side toward repairs. There are “some great opportunities” toward renovating sports facilities if money can be freed up.
“We really want to step back and focus on youth athletic program, to make sure we are providing a good product and a good level of service, and see if we can squeeze dollars out of our operation costs,” Connet said. “There’s no new dollars out there to drop into recreation so we need to find a way to reorganize. If we could spend a couple hundred thousand dollars over several years on the maintenance side, we could really get the park where we want it to be.
“Everything is on the table in our mind as far as how we move forward with recreation,” Connet continued. “We wanted to have that discussion with City Council about how you want our recreation program to look and how you want us to move forward.”
Purvis said positive feedback has been received toward Royal Lane’s layout, with concerns revolving mostly around baseball fields themselves. Connet pointed out the expanse of city-owned land at Royal Lane, with a few renovations standing between making a good facility great.
Those needed renovations include enlarging the park’s baseball fields, which are currently 185 feet, the standard for Little League when the fields were built. Now, that standard is anywhere from 205 to 225 feet. Connet said parents and coaches have suggested they could raise $30,000-$40,000 in private dollars to renovate the fields by soliciting sponsorships to be placed on the field’s fences.
“They are very energetic to get that baseball program where they want it,” said Connet.
Councilman Steve Stefanovich said that while a lot of businesses get tired of being solicited by multiple organizations for sponsorships, maybe selected sponsors could be recognized on a scoreboard or even have the field bear their name. He said it was important that the city support the coaches and players
“Fixing and mending the fences, extending the fences, a lot of this stuff it seems like these guys are ready to do,” said Stefanovich. “It seems like we need to show our support and say ‘look, we’re in.’”
Connet said some prices had already been obtained to gauge the total funds needed to make repairs and renovations, and reconfigure ballfields.
“We’ve already started some of this in motion, in the fact that Mr. Purvis has been gathering prices, and looking at budgets for ways to consolidate and become more efficient,” Connet said.
Fields 1 and 2, both softball fields, are 300 feet and 290 feet, respectively. Fields 3, 4 and 5, all used for Little League baseball, are each 185 feet. Field 6, one of the least used, is also a softball field. The Sampson Center field is 225 feet, the biggest and newest field the city has. Purvis said the city was seeking to reconfigure four of the Royal Lane fields to 200-225 feet.
Relocating lights would cost about $5,000 per field, Purvis noted, down from a huge figure given previously. An entire new field fencing would cost $20,000-$25,000.
“So, at the most you’re talking about $30,000-$35,000 per field,” Purvis remarked. “Obviously, we’re not doing all the fencing, we’re just doing the outfield. And, if the baseball coaches are willing to volunteer on that, you may be able to do each field $10,000-$15,000.”
Connet said it was possible to have baseball fields lengthened by the spring season, if resources come together. Based on the final length of the fields at Royal Lane, scoreboards may also have to be moved which could provide an additional cost, Purvis said.
Stefanovich said it was vital for the city to get behind the baseball program, and the efforts of parents, coaches and players.
“It just seems like to me that we need to show our support,” Stefanovich said, “with them volunteering to help us, spending countless hours, to volunteer their time.”
In addition to the baseball field needs, Connet said there are also issues at the tennis courts and the need for more soccer fields.
“The soccer program continues to boom,” said Connet. “Most all of the soccer in the county is being played at Royal Lane, and it’s working well.”
Asked by Mayor Lew Starling about tennis courts, Connet said there were currently eight tennis courts, half of which are in better shape than the other half. The city manager said, based on the community and the current use, four courts would likely be enough. Those could be repaired and renovated, and the land where the other four courts are could be used for something else.
Along with partnerships for city programs, the city has also discussed sitting down with Sampson County Parks and Recreation so rules and schedules could be aligned to coincide with each other, giving the opportunity for play between both leagues. The idea is a more diverse and inclusive program, Connet said. He said, while generalities were discussed, it was merely the goal to make sure staff was going the direction Council wanted them to.
More specific details would be on the horizon, said Connet.
“I think it’s the unanimous feeling of this Council that we very much support our recreation, and we want to strengthen and improve it,” said Starling. “Probably 10 or 12 years ago, we didn’t have soccer. We have to move with what the citizens want, and we have to be mindful and responsive to that.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.