Representatives of Sampson County and the city of Clinton plan to discuss a potential merger between the two recreation departments, but those talks will not take place until the next city recreation director is in place and settled into the position, city official now say.
The city is close to wrapping up a search for its next recreation director and has an early November timetable by which a decision will be made. Public input on the future of its recreation program has also been solicited, and a possible merger was an option floated by city manager John Connet in a Sept. 7 letter to county manager Ed Causey.
He asked Causey to gauge the Sampson Board of Commissioners’ interest in moving forward with merger discussions, examining the feasibility and benefits of consolidating the recreation departments.
The interest is there, with the county board voting unanimously Oct. 1 to authorize county recreation director Raymond Spell, Causey, assistant county manager Susan Holder and finance officer David Clack to enter into discussions with city officials, making no decisions but reporting back to the board on their progress.
Connet said Monday that no substantial discussion had occurred, but that it would likely take place at the end of this year, possibly the beginning of next. A rough plan has been set to meet further following the naming of the city’s next rec director.
“Ed Causey and I met and had a very positive discussion about improving the overall recreation programs in both the city of Clinton and Sampson County,” said Connet. “We both agreed that our general goals should be the improvement of the overall program for everyone and maintain program costs with existing budgets. We also agreed that a very deliberate approach should be taken.”
The county covers a large geographic area and needs time for everyone to evaluate needs and goals, while the city wants to have an opportunity to reflect on what is the “best final vehicle for delivery of services,” Connet noted.
He listed a general, but deliberate approach, agreed upon by both that would see a slow transition into shared recreation programs and evaluating whether they could work.
“The city is going to move forward and hire a recreation director. We will not schedule any discussions until this new person is on board,” Connet noted. “Initially, we will work to continue close cooperation, collaborate, operate joint programs where and if possible and take time to understand and accommodate the needs of all parties. As cooperation and collaboration continue, we can better evaluate the joint relationship and better determine if and when this process can seamlessly be combined.
“There will be no specific timetable,” he said.
The city manager has said he anticipates a merged department would operate in a very similar manner as the Clinton-Sampson joint planning operation, where the program is managed by the city of Clinton and funded by both organizations.
When Connet’s initial request to consider such a move was presented to commissioners at the beginning of this month, it was well received.
“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.”
Not only would it give a chance for children and their parents to have a better experience, it would promote a more competitive atmosphere a boost a fallen feeder program. Two separate programs have diluted a talent pool that might otherwise flourish under a single roof, Spell noted.
“In my opinion, for the kids, for the programs, it needs to be under one roof, one department,” Spell stressed at the recent meeting. “I definitely think it can work. I think the kids need it. I think we, as the county, can provide a better program for them. The kids will benefit greatly over the long run. The school programs will benefit greatly over the long run.”
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland said “timing is everything,” echoing Connet’s comments about operations where the city and county already tandem toward offering services to the Sampson public, including the airport and all planning and zoning issues.
“With those things, we have a wonderful relationship and I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue,” Strickland said. “I think if we’re ever going to consider this in the current scheme of things, now is the time to consider this.”
Connet said Monday, now that interest has been shown, it will be a matter of trying some things and gauging the success.
“We don’t want to do anything to hurt either program,” he remarked, “and we want to do something that will benefit both the city and the county programs, if or when a merger might take place.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.