After spending $50,000 and the better part of a year, the Johnston County Visitors Bureau has a comprehensive plan to guide the expansion of parks and recreation in the county.
The Visitors Bureau’s Sports Council hired SageDesign to conduct the research, and last week, company owner Sara Burroughs presented highlights from the 190-page report to about 50 people gathered in the Johnston Community College auditorium.
For its first step, Burroughs said her team took an inventory of recreation amenities located throughout the county and its towns. Johnston already has “incredible facilities,” Burroughs said, but no database or map allows residents, visitors or planners to see everything the county has to offer.
“It’s hard to understand what you need when you don’t know what you have,” she said.
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To better serve residents and visitors, Burroughs said the county should make a version of that list available on its website.
Next, Sage design surveyed 2,500 people over the course of four months. When asked to prioritize limited funding for new recreation facilities, an overwhelming majority said they would like more greenway paths and trails, Burroughs said. The next most popular choices were swimming pools, a public amphitheater, baseball/softball fields and playgrounds for children.
Specifically, survey respondents said they would like the Mountains-to-Sea Trail connection completed between Clayton and Smithfield.
“People want to see that,” Burroughs said. “They’re so excited about what’s already in place, and making those connections can be a really great asset for your residents and from a tourism perspective. People will drive to come see what’s along the trail.”
Other recommendations include building a county park in the Cleveland community; holding outdoor movie showings and arts festivals; establishing a land-conservation program to protect natural and cultural resources; and working out a fee structure with Wilson to give Johnston residents access to Buckhorn Resevoir.
To lead the way, Burroughs said Johnston needs to hire a county parks and recreation director or at least reallocate staff to take a big-picture view of services and act as a liaison with the towns. Johnston is one of 20 counties without a parks and recreation director.
Johnston County Commissioner Ted Godwin said he thought the study did a good job of bringing the various recreation departments and interested parties in the county together. While he could not say what commissioners would do with the plan’s “sweeping recommendations,” Godwin said he did not want to see the document placed on a shelf and allowed to die.
“I don’t think there’s an appetite among our folks to really expand the government per se,” said Godwin, who previously served on the Visitors Bureau board. “But we need to keep focus on this because it’s a significant economic driver, and it’s part of the quality of life we try to demonstrate to potential employers.”
The Visitors Bureau will make the plan available on its website, JohnstonCountyNC.org, so that residents can review the document and recreation groups can reference it when writing grant proposals. A $9,000 gift from the N.C. Community Transformation Grant Project helped fund the study.
The goal for the Visitors Bureau, executive director Donna Bailey-Taylor said, is to attract tourists to the county’s trails and waterways and, in the long run, develop new facilities for sports tournaments and similar events.
“We know (recreation) brings more visitors to our county, and they stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and help our economy,” she said.