Towns pay so people can play

Deals with schools serve wider needs

Staff WriterMay 12, 2005 

For many Wake County property owners, the news that the county might need to build 96 schools in the next 15 years can mean only one thing: higher taxes.

But for the growing municipalities where many of these schools will be built, the construction boom is a golden opportunity.

From Ballentine in Fuquay-Varina to Creech Road in Garner to Salem in Apex, elementary school playgrounds have become home to many municipal sports leagues.

Such schools represent an unusual collaboration between the county, the school system and the municipalities:

In exchange for helping to build and maintain the sports facilities, towns sign long-term agreements to use the schools' fields and gyms.

The agreements, which began with Apex Elementary School in 1981, have been a godsend for cash-strapped towns not eager to raise money by selling bonds. The collaborations are so popular that no school is built in Wake County without a town being approached about investing in the school's recreation facilities, said Robert Hinson, a landscape architect and project manager with the county.

Hinson said most joint projects are at elementary schools because they have fewer after-school activities that might interfere with a town's plans.

As the middle man in negotiations between the school system and towns, the county's parks and recreation officials play a key role.

"Without them, these joint agreements wouldn't happen," said Jerry Allen, parks and recreation director for Fuquay-Varina.

Last week, the southern Wake town reached a 25-year joint use agreement to use fields at Ballentine Elementary School. The 27-acre site includes a park that eventually will have picnic shelters and walking trails.

Fuquay-Varina made an initial $100,000 investment and is responsible for the fields' continued development and upkeep. Wake County Parks and Recreation contributed $450,000 to help buy the property and for construction.

Hinson said the level of municipal involvement depends on the needs of the town and what it can afford. The only stipulation is that the agreements don't place additional costs on the school system.

Zebulon, Knightdale

In Zebulon, the town chipped in $50,000 to upgrade an existing field and add a field at Zebulon Elementary School. Greg Johnson, Zebulon's parks and recreation director, said the eastern Wake town is also in discussions to invest in fields at Wakelon, an elementary school to be built in 2007.

Johnson said that Zebulon would like to build its own recreation facility but that no money is available.

"The town has many needs, and that's just not a top one right now," said Johnson, noting that estimates put the cost of a recreation center at $3 million to $4 million, nearly half of Zebulon's budget.

In Knightdale, the town invested nearly $4 million in the construction of 169-acre Knightdale Community Park, a complex that is also home to Knightdale High and Forestville Road Elementary schools. The town and the schools share access to athletic fields, a gymnasium and a recreation center.

Tina Cheek, Knightdale's parks and recreation director, said Knightdale covered about 40 percent of the cost and worked out a detailed joint-use agreement.

"It's got everything in it down to who changes the light bulbs," she said.

Cheek said the town decided that investing money up front would save money in the long run. Not renting gym space for its basketball program this summer will save $20,000, she said.

Space crunch

Even with the security of long-term access to school facilities, most growing Wake towns find themselves cramped for space, which usually translates into an occasional late night or early morning practice for some teams. It also means that unexpected problems with a field or court can play havoc with meticulously scheduled seasons.

This winter, Fuquay-Varina's town gym closed after it was found to be infested with termites. The closing forced the town to lease space from the middle school to complete its basketball season.

"The gym snuck up and killed us," said Ed McCauley, executive director of the town's athletic association. McCauley said the school system charges the town from $27 to $50 an hour to rent a gym.

The athletic association plans a fund-raiser to help pay for repairs to the gym. Town officials also are considering adding a gym to its community center, but preliminary estimates put the cost at $3 million, Allen said.

Gene Hall, whose 13-year-old son plays baseball in Fuquay-Varina, said the town always needs new fields and gyms. But he said Fuquay-Varina doesn't have the tax base of a town like Cary and can't spend lavishly on sports facilities.

Public financing

One option for towns is to sell bonds to finance facilities.

Apex voters in November approved issuing $13 million in bonds for parks. John Brown, the parks and recreation director, said Apex plans to allocate $2 million of that for an athletic complex.

Since 1986, Brown said, Apex's parks and recreation budget has risen from $80,000 to $3 million, with about 35 percent of the current budget going to repay the bonds.

Brown said many of the families moving into Apex are used to having good recreation facilities.

"The result of that is that they're willing to pay for it as long as it's a good service," he said, noting the bond measure passed with about 80 percent approval.

Hall said he doubts Fuquay-Varina residents would approve such a bond initiative.

"There are so many other bond issues, I doubt it would be accepted willingly," he said.

Staff writer David Bracken can be reached at 829-4548 or dbracken@newsobserver.com.

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