Discussions will take place in the coming weeks about the feasibility and benefits of consolidating the Sampson County and City of Clinton recreation departments, with county commissioners giving the go-ahead Monday to authorize staff to enter into talks with city officials about a possible merge.
The Board of Commissioners vote came after discussion among commissioners and the county’s recreation director Raymond Spell at Monday’s meeting, prompted by a letter from city manager John Connet asking for the county’s consideration.
The city is searching for a new recreation director and has been soliciting public input on the future of its recreation program. To that end, Connet inquired last month as to whether the county had any interest in a merger.
“As we begin our search for a new recreation director, I wanted to inquire about any interest Sampson County may have in merging recreation programs,” Connet stated in a Sept. 7 letter. “I would anticipate that a merged department would operate in a very similar manner as our joint planning operation, where the program is managed by the city of Clinton and funded by both organizations. I would respectfully request that you discuss this matter with the Board f Commissioner and gauge their interest in moving forward with merger discussions.”
That consideration was given Monday night, and the board and Spell were receptive of the positive possibilities that could come from such a move. When asked, Spell could not say for sure what kind of savings might arise from going that direction, but acknowledged the programmatic benefits could be immense.
“What you have right now is two departments that are offering almost identical programs,” said Spell, “but you have one pool of kids, so each department operates with three or four-team leagues. You’ll do away with that. You would have an opportunity to offer six and eight-team leagues, something more competitive, something more spirited, something that is more in-depth than what we have to offer in some programs.”
Spell said it gives a chance for children and their parents to have a better and more exciting experience. It also saves some less talented teams from getting beaten every game because there are only one or two other teams that they play all season.
“In my opinion, for the kids, for the programs, it needs to be under one roof, one department,” Spell stressed.
He said there has been a lot of talk about recreation serving as a feeder program, and how such feeder programs have fallen off in recent years. That is because there is not a larger pool to chose from with one countywide program, so two separate programs have become diluted to a certain extent.
“That’s where you’re starting to see some of the athletic programs aren’t as strong anymore, because you don’t have that competitiveness out there,” said Spell. “We need to get that competitive drive back into every district, and it’s lacking in some districts. The only way you can get better is play competitive teams.”
Like Spell, Commissioner Albert Kirby recalled when Royal Lane was a haven for kids from all over the county and hundreds of people would gather to watch recreation games, be it football, baseball or another sport.
“We had Plain View, Clement, Midway, Roseboro, it was a time when I think the kids weren’t getting into as much mischief too. They were so busy with sports, that diverted their attention from some of the devilment they get involved in now,” said Kirby. “My view is, if it’s possible to explore that kind of program, from the point of view of the whole county, not just Clinton but all the different municipalities, without it costing us — if there is a way we can come together and pull our resources and work on having a unified program, I think there would probably be benefit to everybody.”
Coaches have expressed the same desire, Spell said.
While he said he could not speak to the budgetary aspects before crunching numbers with the city, Spell said he believed that both departments would likely have to stay funded at the same level in the initial stages until departments got further along to identify areas where there was redundancy and savings to be had.
“I definitely think it can work,” he stressed. “I think the kids need it. I think we, as the county, can provide a better program for them. I’m not saying we don’t offer a great program. Word on the street is we’re the shiny toy now; people want to come play with us and our numbers reflect that. And we’re doing that with less money and less staff, but we’re still getting it done.”
He said recreation employees have bought into the process of doing more with less. Being able to consolidate resources would only improve that service.
“The kids will benefit greatly over the long run. The school programs will benefit greatly over the long run,” said Spell, who noted the success of a recreation program can translate into equal success in life and schoolwork. “All it does is make the whole thing grow. In time you’ll see the reflection in high schools. My vision would be (that it would operate) just like it’s set up right now in the county. Clinton would just be like the fifth district.”
With a consolidated department, district participation would grow as a result of a program under one roof and most games could be played within districts, with little travel necessary. For occasional matches or end-of-season tournaments, teams from across the county could get together at a central location.
“Even when you do have some travel, it’s going to be minimal,” said Spell. “That’s not the issue. The issue is what’s going to best for every kid in this county. What program can we offer to these kids that is going to benefit all kids in the county.”
Kirby said that is how it used to be in the past, when children across the county got to know a larger group of children through recreation.
“The kids get to know each other playing each other, and the parents get to know each other and see each other,” said board chairman Billy Lockamy. “It would bring the county and the city closer together.”
Other commissioners agreed, and said the time to give serious consideration to a big change was now.
“I think timing is everything,” said Commissioner Jefferson Strickland. “I think if we’re ever going to consider this in the current scheme of things, now is the time to consider this. We have heard from the county manager that we get along quite well in those areas (where we partner with the city), such as the Airport, Planning and Zoning, the Animal Shelter. With those things, we have a wonderful relationship and I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue.”
Strickland made a motion that Spell, county manager Ed Causey, assistant county manager Susan Holder and finance officer David Clack be authorized to enter into discussions with city officials, making no decisions but reporting back to the board on their progress. The vote was unanimous.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.