Despite having the largest population in Johnston County, the Cleveland community doesn’t have a park bench, playground, or picnic table to call its own. It’s a reality one local group hopes voters will pay to change.
Johnston County commissioners voted unanimously last month to allow a group of community members to look into creating a dedicated parks and recreation district for Cleveland, an unincorporated community off of Interstate 40 near Garner and Clayton. The long-term goal is to build a network of parks, athletic fields, walking trails and playgrounds.
Local voters would have to approve a tax referendum, because neither the county nor state funds parks in unincorporated areas. Tentative numbers suggest that Cleveland residents would need to agree to a 4 cent housing tax increase to fund a parks and recreation district.
“There’s no free lunch,” said Denton Lee, a member of the group advocating for the district. “We’re not hiding the fact that this would be a tax increase, but we feel like this is the greatest need in the community right now.”
Cleveland, which has a population of about 27,000, has considered becoming an incorporated town several times over the years, and parks have been one of the motivating factors. The Greater Cleveland Athletic Association serves roughly 4,000 youth ages 4 to 14 who play baseball, softball, soccer and other sports. But the group said it’s running out of space.
“We have so many kids in the area that we can’t accommodate them all,” said Michael Knott, president of the association. “We are well in favor of this (referendum). This will be a park for everyone to use.”
But it’s unclear whether Cleveland residents would be willing to pay. For years, voters have resisted incorporation to avoid paying a city tax. With a 4 cent tax increase for a park district, a resident who owns a $200,000 home would pay an additional $80 per year.
Johnston is one of the few counties in North Carolina without a parks and recreation department, allowing local governments to create and regulate parks and programs themselves. Most towns in Johnston do just that, but Cleveland has no central government.
Even though county leaders gave their approval to explore the idea of a parks and recreation district, they are hesitant to move forward without a public vote.
“The community knows what they need and what they want better than a bunch of commissioners,” said Commissioner Cookie Pope. “I think it’s a grand opportunity for them to explore this idea, and there are certainly needs for recreation in the Cleveland community. This will be for the Cleveland citizens to decide for themselves.”
The local group applied to put a $30,000 grant from the state legislature to start the project. It expects to find out in mid-October whether the state approves of the parks and recreation idea. If approved, the group wants to conduct a needs assessment, host public meetings and consider land options.
If a referendum passes, the new tax would likely take effect in June 2019. The new tax district would follow the same lines as Cleveland’s fire district.
Kenneth Collins, who lives in the community, said he’d be happy to pay for better park facilities. His two children, Mckenzie, 11, and Derrick, 13, participate in the local athletic group, but Collins said he pays upwards of $400 a weekend for his son to play in a traveling league.
“We’ve lost a lot of kids to travel programs because there just are not enough fields,” Collins said. “I’m absolutely for (a parks and recreation district). I say, hurry up and do it.”
Wayne Baker, a small business owner in Cleveland, said new facilities would be helpful to everyone.
“I feel like this is something the community desperately needs,” Baker said. “The kids need fields to play on, active adults need walking trails, churches need areas to have family days, and families need places to have reunions.”
Autumn Linford writes stories about Johnston County for The News & Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.