Seven years ago, then-Mayor Russell Killen sat down with former Mayor Billy Wilder at Wilder’s house and talked about the need for a new park in the center of town.
Wilder owned more than 70 acres on the edge of Old Town that had long been a nursery. He had optioned the mostly undeveloped land to a developer, but with the 2008 recession having just hit, demand for new houses was down. The developer, Mike Jordan of JordanBuilt Homes, was willing to give up his option if the property was used for a park.
“My wife (Libby) and I decided that we really didn’t want to see it covered up with houses,” Wilder said. “We decided we’d like to have a park there and we worked out the details.”
The town had Harper Park in Old Town, but Killen and Wilder were imagining something much bigger, a park to hold large events and bring more focus to the center of a town that had seen a lot of mostly suburban-style development. “Towns used to have a town center,” Killen said. “People in Knightdale had a strong sense of community but not a place for community.”
In 2010, the Town Council voted to purchase the property from Wilder for $2,970,000, about $110,000 below the $3,080,112 tax value. “It was just a very unique situation where we had the land available in the center of town,” Killen said.
Since the park opened in September 2013, it has fulfilled the promise Killen and Wilder saw, with an estimated 100,000 overall visitors. The town’s Independence Day celebration alone drew 15,000, up from 12,000 last year.
And the park has not just been a hit for big events but also for the everyday amenities, such as the dog park, playground, trails and tennis courts. “On any given day,” Parks and Recreation Director Tina Cheek said, “if it’s pretty outside, there are more than 100 people out there. ... You see people engaged. You see neighbors talking. You see people who just met.”
Cheek credits the town government with doing a good job of reaching out to the community and finding out what the town needed in a park. “They just started listening to what people wanted,” she said, “and I think the vision came from our Town Council.”
It’s not just Knightdale citizens who are enjoying the park, either. “It’s really become a regional draw,” Development Services Director Chris Hills said, “where people can come out and enjoy the splendor of our park.”
When the town was using Harper Park to hold its bigger events, such as the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, Hills said, it had to shut down Main Street, but Knightdale Station Park has more roadways supporting it, allowing Main Street to remain open even during big events.
The availability of such a large parcel of undeveloped land in the center of town at the time the town was looking to build something close to Old Town was fortuitous, Hills said, providing a draw for partners such as the YMCA and Thales Academy to add to the new interest in the area.
Wilder said he and his wife ride their bicycles around the park a few times a week and loves seeing what it has become. “We particularly enjoy the fact that so many kids are out there enjoying it, and young families,” Wilder said.
Killen says it was the biggest undertaking he led the town through as mayor – and, like Cheek, he gives credit to the Town Council for having the foresight to follow his lead on the project. “I love going to that park,” he said.
“I love walking around and seeing people playing and enjoying themselves and seeing them doing the things we envisioned. That’s probably the thing I did as mayor that gives me the most satisfaction.”
Matt Goad: 919-829-4826