Scores of parents wandered perfectly curved lakeside walks. Hordes of children scrambled over playground obstacles. A miniature train blew its hearty whistle, and a pack of photographers snapped up the mellowing November light of a Sunday afternoon.
This is what $6.3 million did for Raleigh’s Pullen Park – and city planners are hoping to do it again on the east side of downtown, in the sometimes overlooked John Chavis Memorial Park, as part of a larger spending proposal that’s up for a public decision.
Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to give the city government permission to borrow another $92 million in bonds to spend on the parks system, with a potential property tax increase of 4 percent to cover the bill. Chavis Park, with plans for a Pullen-style upgrade, is the costliest item on the wish list.
The city’s informational website is at bit.ly/ralparksbond. City staff say this parks package – which would be the sixth approved since 1981 – focuses more than any previous effort on upgrades and renovations for existing parks.
“With the earlier bonds, we had significant growth in Raleigh. It was more about growth in the system,” said Diane Sauer, director of parks, recreation and cultural resources for Raleigh.
“Over the last couple years, we thought – and then it was confirmed in our system-planning process – that we have a great parks system, but we need to take care of what we have.”
Critics, however, contend that Raleigh has come to rely too heavily on debt funding, and that the city government instead should spend within current limits.
The bonds referendum carries a potential tax hit of 1.72 cents per $100 valuation, or about $51 annually on a $300,000 home, according to the city.
In all, roughly half the funds would go toward existing facilities, a third toward land purchases and new parks, and the remainder for greenway improvement and construction.
Patricia and Scott Hoppmann grew up in Raleigh, and on Sunday they took their infant daughter Audrey to Pullen for her first visit to a park.
As she dozed in the shade of her stroller, the new parents tried to put their fingers on exactly what had changed with the renovations that concluded in 2011.
When they were growing up, they said, the place had an air of neglect and seemed almost haunted.
Now, “I think it’s a lot busier, for sure,” Patricia said.
“It definitely feels a lot cleaner,” Scott added.
“The whole cafe and entrance area –,” Patricia began.
“ – is just a whole lot more welcoming,” Scott concluded, referring to the cluster of green-shingled buildings with their “PP” logos, fronted by a cut-out metal entrance banner.
But just as that gate has welcomed countless visitors in recent years, other sections of the city have begun to wonder when they might see their improvements too.
‘I want it to be better’
At John Chavis Memorial Park, which would receive $12.5 million under the new spending program, only a handful of families gathered on the playground as the sun warmed Sunday’s brisk afternoon.
The Southeast Raleigh park is well maintained – its grounds free of trash and shaded by large pines – yet a few recent improvements haven’t hidden its age, according to some visitors.
“This is kind of outdated,” said Tewanna Sanders, swinging next to her 7-year-old son, Brandon, at the edge of the playground.
The reflective metal slides, she pointed out, could be too hot in summer. And the playground’s base of sand too easily conceals broken glass, said Sanders, who moved recently from Fayetteville.
There’s also the fact that Chavis is easy to miss, showing little of its sweep to anyone approaching from its downtown-facing western edge.
The city’s proposed plan could open up the park’s vistas, potentially including a new aquatics center, skating spots and an amusement ride, among other changes meant to create a cohesive “Wow.”
“It’s usable, it’s nice,” said B. Hood, who has lived on Lenoir Street for 28 years, and near Chavis Park all her life.
But the 30-acre spread “could be better. I want it to be better,” Hood said as she walked her usual two miles around the track.
“I think there have been other areas that have seen more upgrades,” she continued.
“It’s close enough to downtown that with more activity and upgrades, it could be a vital part of downtown.”
Half would go to existing parks
The Chavis Park plan is the most expensive item on the city’s wish list. Next comes $12 million for the new Baileywick Community Center, $10 million for land purchases, $8 million for aquatics centers upgrades, $6 million to replace the Pullen Arts Center and $6 million for work at the Walnut Creek athletic center and wetlands park.
The proposed spending also includes $7.2 million to improve greenways, $4 million to improve lighting at sports fields and courts, $2 million for heating and air-conditioning systems and $1.5 million for playgrounds, among other categories.
The city placed the bonds referendum on the ballot with unanimous City Council support. Much of the advocacy for the referendum has been done by a city-appointed committee, using privately raised money.
The Wake County Taxpayers Association, meanwhile, has been the most visible critic of the proposal.
“The city has a lot of programs – they need to decide, which ones do they need?” said Paul Fitts, a member of the group.
“Many of these projects are not things the public needs,” said Ed Jones, the group’s president.
Raleigh’s debt as of June 30 – the most complete accounting currently available – was about $1.5 billion, according to the city’s debt manager, Fred Blackwood.
That’s about 15 times greater than it was in 1990, he acknowledged – but he contended that expanding population and revenue have kept debt costs down. In recent years, debt service has made up 18 to 19 percent of total spending, according to the budget.
“We will never issue more debt than we can afford, or that would jeopardize our credit rating,” he said.
While the taxpayers association says that bonds burden future generations for today’s needs, Blackwood argues that bonds allow future users to pay their share for improvements and expansion.
The first of the projects would start construction next fall and continue for five to seven years, according to the city. They were selected and recommended to the City Council by staff after a public planning process that included surveys and focus groups.
Back at Chavis, Elliott Smith expressed high hopes that the bonds spending would give him and his toddler, Annabelle, more must-see stops for their weekend park tours.
She’d probably like more of the trains, the merry-go-rounds and the pedal boats that are becoming hallmarks of new parks, he said, pushing her higher on the swing set.
“But oddly enough,” he admitted, “she probably likes the swings the best.”