Recreation in Columbia County has grown immensely in the past 30 years, and it looks like more growth is coming. The Columbia County Recreation Department plans to acquire additional land throughout the county.
Charlie Beale, manager of the county's recreation department since 1976, has seen many changes in his years at the helm of the county's recreation facilities. He went from overseeing one park to managing nine county facilities today.
"The basis of our department has been support from the citizens," said Beale, adding that residents' support has allowed growth in the field of recreation. "The county commission brought in a team from the Department of Natural Resources in the early 1970s to study the possibility of setting up a recreation department in the county. A steering committee was established and from that an advisory board was set up. We've been able to build with matching funds from the DNR prior to the implementation of the 1-cent sales tax. Almost every time we applied for a grant, we got it."
When funds from the DNR dried up, the recreation department went through a period in which nothing was built and no upgrades to existing facilities were made. Patriots Park was built in 1992 and was one of the leading projects that propelled the 1-cent sales tax amendment to pass in the early 1990s.
Click here to contact us.
"Patriots Park is one of the largest recreation facilities in the state," said Beale. "It is a multi-faceted facility. A lot of things go on out here."
In addition to six baseball fields, five softball fields, five soccer fields and nine tennis courts, Patriots Park boasts of a gymnasium complete with two basketball courts and four racquetball courts, three picnic areas, two playgrounds, a quarter-mile walking track and an 18-hole disc golf course. The county's annual Fourth of July celebration is held there, as is the countywide Easter egg hunt. The recreation department also participates in the annual Memorial Day festivities and the Christmas tree lighting.
"All recreation departments are built based on the team-sport concept," said Beale, "but we are looking to build a new facility that may offer a skate park, a BMX track, additional soccer fields and picnic areas."
He won't comment on where the department is looking to expand. But a growth management plan, Forward 2020, recently published in draft form by the department, lists the "first priority for land acquisition has been set in the Martinez-Evans area and then, secondly, the Greenbrier Town Center." The report also includes recommendations for developing a multipurpose center or "other expanded recreational facilities" at Wildwood Park.
Richard Butler, one of the county's first recreation department board members, cites people like Beale with having the foresight of envisioning the growth of the county and helping bring about the recreation department's expansion. "In the early 1970s, we didn1t have any fields to play on," said Butler. "'Cow fields' are what I called them."
When a storage facility at an old elementary school burned, the department's only equipment was lost in the fire. Butler said the county had no insurance to cover the loss, so a large fund-raising campaign was begun to replace the lost equipment.
"We raised enough money during a five-year period to expand our baseball, football and soccer fields and put lights up at Blanchard Park and at Harlem Park," said Butler. "Soon after, some parents were elected to the county commission and they realized how valuable recreation was to the county. It has evolved into a great big plus for the county."
Butler, who points out that there were others on the first advisory board who were instrumental in expanding the county's recreation facilities, said that after nearly 10 years of focusing on youth sports, citizens asked that an emphasis be placed on recreation activities for adults.
"As we got going, we saw that something was missing," he said. "We had everything for the kids, but nothing for the adults. We began a men1s softball program in the late 1970s and it grew into one of the largest programs in the state."
Butler, like Beale, admits that the county is quickly reaching capacity for its existing recreational facilities. Census statistics put the county's population at 89,288 two years ago, up from nearly 24,000 in 1976.
"The county is growing faster than we can keep up with the facilities," admonishes Butler. "We have to do something for adults, as well as children, and we can't be landlocked in one area."
The only way Butler sees it is to raise taxes to cover land acquisitions. Or, he says, developers can begin setting aside land in neighborhoods for "smaller, centralized neighborhood parks. I think that would be so beneficial.
"I love youth and I love the kids," he adds. "I really believe in my heart that it's a matter of getting involved and getting other people involved."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.