Cary’s parks, recreation and cultural resources programs have been named some of the best in the country, highlighting the town’s ongoing efforts to provide fun and accessible offerings that cater to all ages and abilities.
On Oct. 6, the town’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources department received the National Gold Medal Grand Plaque Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management. Staff received the honor at the National Recreation and Park Association annual conference in St. Louis.
“It’s the highest award within the field of parks and recreation that a community can receive, and so we are very elated,” said Doug McRainey, director of the town’s parks, recreation and cultural resources department. “I think we have some of the best staff around, and that level of expertise shows through the quality and the quantity of our programs.”
The recognition comes at a time when Cary leaders are working to prioritize future park projects, balancing its revitalization efforts downtown with a growing western Cary and older neighborhoods that have been awaiting nearby projects for years.
Cary was considered for the Class II award among municipalities that range from 150,000 to 400,000 residents, including Arlington, Texas. With Cary’s population of about 160,000, it’s at the lower end of its category.
Awards are given in five classes based on population; one for armed forces recreation; and one for state park systems. McRainey said it is uncommon for a town to win the award the first time they apply.
“I viewed it as kind of a David and Goliath type of thing, so that made it even more satisfying,” he said.
Currently, Cary has about 2,600 acres of open space, including 35 public parks, connected by 82 miles of greenways.
“They are all very unique and they all have a personality, if you will,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said about Cary’s parks. “Walnut Street Park has a different feel from Jack Smith Park, and I’d say Carpenter Park will have a different feel from other parks.”
The town’s three-time nationally accredited department also oversees the operations of the town’s three community centers, three cultural art centers, two performance venues, a nature center and a senior center, as well as four sports venues – WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary Tennis Park, USA Baseball National Training Center and the Sk8-Cary Skate Park – that often feature amateur and collegiate competitions.
“Since 2004, over 5 million visitors have experienced one of Cary’s sports venues, yielding an economic impact of over $100 million,” McRainey said in a video touting the amenities of the town.
McRainey added that the town also offers diverse cultural arts programs and other events at the Cary Arts Center, The Cary theater and Koka Booth Amphitheatre. The town is still awaiting the completion of Downtown Park off South Academy Street, which will add another performance space in the area.
“Then you top everything off with our events and our festivals every weekend,” McRainey said. “We have three or four things happening, whether it’s sports or cultural arts, so our citizens have a number of choice to make in terms of entertainment.”
Weinbrecht said he expects future phases of the Downtown Park to follow quickly because the council supports building on the momentum of recent public and private revitalization efforts downtown. But he said it also is important for Cary leaders to balance that momentum with the need for parks in western Cary and around the town’s oldest neighborhoods.
Cary has other plans around town in terms of phases for existing and future parks, but officials say one of the biggest challenges, as with any town, is funding.
This is one of the reasons Cary’s leaders and staff are considering a bond referendum in the next few years that could include more park projects. The last three park bond referendums passed with overwhelming support, according to town staff.
“I think the big challenge is to maintain the high-level quality while still having to grow the system,” McRainey said. “The town is growing, so you are trying to achieve this balance with the limited funding that you have between maintaining what you have and investing in new facilities that are needed.”
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon