After college, former Smithfield Town Councilman B.W. Booker and a brother bought back the family farm that had put them through school. His daughter is now offering part of that Cleveland farmland for what would be the first county-owned community park in Johnston.
Beth Booker Lawson and her husband, Dewey Lawson, made their offer to county commissioners at their February meeting. Lawson wants to donate 12.7 acres at Polenta and Matthews roads to Johnston County, provided the land becomes a public park to match her vision. Lawson, who lives in Durham, said she wanted the park to mark the Booker family’s place in Cleveland’s history and serve a need in its future.
“I hope to leave part of that land as a family legacy,” Lawson said. “I own the only part of the farm that is left in the family and hope to give 12.7 acres to Johnston County to be utilized as a community park. I hope we can reach an agreement for me to give the land to the county and the county establish and maintain a family park on that land.”
Johnston County is famously without a parks and recreation department, instead relying on its towns and community groups to maintain parks and ball fields and to run youth and adult sports leagues. The county offers some funding to those efforts but has so far avoided the parks and rec game. The Booker farm park would be the first non-sports park to exist outside any town limits.
Commissioner Cookie Pope, who lives in the Cleveland community, asked Lawson if she had had any talks with the Greater Cleveland Athletic Association, which runs youth sports leagues in the community. Lawson said yes but that she thinks turning the land into a sports complex would be too limiting.
“Yes, they’re interested in having it for athletic fields, but that is not my vision,” Lawson said. “There may be space out there for one field, two fields, but I would like to see a park there so that all the community, including people our age, can go out there and ride a bike.”
Jonathan Breeden, a Cleveland attorney and secretary of GCAA said the group is in dire need of ball fields in the community, that right now the organization is using fields behind C3 church, West View Elementary and the old Cleveland School, but that sometimes as many as three games are going on on one field.
“All the field space we have is maxed out and we continue to grow every year,” Breeden said. “We’re going to have to start putting caps on sports and waiting list people. We hate to do that, but if we can’t get field space for practice and games I don’t know what other choice we have.”
Breeden said the potential of incorporating even one field into the Booker land park would help, but that sooner or later Johnston County will have to take a harder look at the way parks and rec is handled and funded.
“If nothing else Ms. Lawson has started a conversation that needs to be had,” Breeden said.
The Johnston County Board of Commissioners appeared appreciative of the offer but didn’t immediately jump at the donation, which would still cost thousands to turn into a park. Board chairman Jeff Carver said commissioners would take the matter under advisement and left County Manager Rick Hester to work out a plan with the Lawsons.
“We certainly appreciate y’all giving us this opportunity,” Carver said.
Lawson’s husband said an appraiser had recently valued the land at $336,000, and he recommended Johnston seek a grant from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, which offers up to $500,000 in dollar-for-dollar matching grants for park development. The value of the land, he noted, could go toward Johnston’s share.
Cleveland is one of the fastest-growing spots in Johnston, but Dewey Lawson argued it’s a desert in terms of community parks. He used a report from the Johnston County Visitors Bureau showing that the nearest parks are in Clayton and Smithfield but that Cleveland represents a great demand.
“There really are no family parks in the vicinity,” he said. “This would serve an identified need. ... There would be costs to the county in establishing and maintaining such a park. We think it has high value for the community there. We would like to see the Cleveland community enjoy this continuing relationship with the Booker family. We think this will be attractive to you in a way of reducing the county’s costs by being able to use the value of our contribution.”
Across the street from the proposed land donation, Beth Lawson owns another 69 untouched acres. She said she would likely sell that land soon for a residential subdivision.