When County Commissioner Cookie Pope’s children were younger, they played baseball in the yard.
“We’d play on our two acres, but every now and then they would yell, ‘Momma, don’t swing, there’s a car coming,’ ” Pope said.
Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink; that’s what it can feel like to spend time outdoors in a rural county. Those thousands of acres of open space are, most often, private property, so a seemingly harmless traipse through the woods for someone is actually trespassing. And ball fields have moved from countless backyards to concentrated sports complexes, most of them in towns, not rural communities.
Earlier this year, the Johnston County Sports Council, under the umbrella of the county’s Visitors Bureau, unveiled a parks and recreation master plan. It inventoried the county’s athletic and outdoor offerings and suggested steps the county could take to attract sporting events to Johnston.
More recently, Donna Bailey-Taylor, executive director of the Visitors Bureau, pitched the plan to Johnston towns seeking their endorsement. Clayton adopted the plan as the “official document of record for county parks and recreation planning and development.” But some Clayton leaders, and others, are trying to determine what that means.
“There hasn’t been any indication that the county realizes there’s economic opportunity there,” Clayton Councilman Butch Lawter said after the plan received a lukewarm endorsement from council members, who were unsure what would become of it. “Will it be a nice plan that just sits on the shelf?”
The $50,000 plan took a year to complete and included a survey of county residents. The top things people want to see park money spent on are trails and greenways, swimming pools, a public amphitheater, athletic fields and playgrounds.
Some view the master plan as useless without a county parks and recreation department; others think Johnston County is getting along just fine without one.
“Who takes up the charge to connect the trail between Clayton and Smithfield?” Lawter said. “Who is going to foot the bill to design it and get it built?”
Clayton recently updated its comprehensive land-use plan, committing itself to being the “premier community for active families.” It plans to do this by creating greater access to the Neuse River and building trails and parks.
As the town tries to beef up its parks program, Lawter said, it sees feels demand from those outside of Clayton’s borders.
“There’s a frustration, because not only Clayton residents are using our facilities,” he said. “We can’t police that and have looked to the county to help provide (recreation options). With no assistance from the county, we’re funding recreation for county residents through the town.”
Smithfield is seeing that as well, said Councilman Emery Ashley. He said the town usually needs county residents to help fill up its programs, typically at a higher cost for those participants. But some financial support from the county might be appropriate, he said.
“I’ve always felt we have first-class recreation here in Smithfield,” Ashley said. “I’ve felt that for years, but we’re basically subsidizing county residents with town tax dollars. County residents want it, and the county should take a strong look at it. Everything is better when everybody works together. Selling Johnston County should be first and foremost.”
Selling Johnston County was the impetus for the parks master plan, as the Visitors Bureau thinking Johnston can attract tourist dollars by hosting youth sports tournaments. Bailey-Taylor said that in courting these tournaments in the past, many wanted to see a master parks plan. The result was an inventory of park facilities in the county, broken down by municipality and community. The next step appears to be figuring out whether there will be a larger umbrella for all of those facilities to fall under.
“What we want to discuss with the county is not necessarily a department but someone on staff charged with looking at facility needs in the county,” Bailey-Taylor said. “We want a partner at the county level to help with bike routes and boat ramp locations – maybe just one person.”
So far, Johnston County Commissioners have taken no action on the plan. Pope said she would not vote for a parks and recreation department, and she said Johnston towns and communities have flourished under the current model.
“The individual communities know their needs much more so than a county-run operation,” Pope said. “We’re just not in the business of having county recreation.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson