AP NEWS

ORANGE COUNTY 4 parks up for improvements

May 13, 2019

Orange County parks could be headed for restoration and improvement after years of shrinking funds and hurricanes left a bridge compromised, canoe basin unusable and trails overgrown, among other damage.

And the county wants to include the public while choosing the improvements.

The Orange County Parks Department recently received a grant of services from the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program.

The grant assigns a National Parks employee to work with the county to create a master plan, laying out projected improvements and the steps needed to accomplish them, said Orange County Parks Director Sabrina Gray.

Four parks in Orange County will be included in the action plan: Claiborne West Park, Bluebird Fish Camp, Gould Walking Park and Baileys Fish Camp.

Claiborne West, the largest of the three, comprises 453 acres of land. It has a tennis court, softball field, disc golf course, horseshoe and washer court, a mountain bike trail and two playgrounds, among other amenities.

Patsy McEntee, a project manager and landscape architect with the National Parks Service, said the agency’s commitment to cities and counties lasts at least a year with an opportunity to extend for a second year if necessary.

She will work this week with local leadership, law enforcement and members of the community at two public meetings to learn about their vision for the county’s parks and what new amenities could be provided to enhance recreational opportunities.

“This project was really born from hurricane effects on, and damage to, the parks,” she said. “But it’s not just repairing what’s there. It’s also taking a look at what a resilient park is and taking a step back to determine what else can be made better.”

At the public meetings, residents can leave comment cards, write on maps of the parks and talk with McEntee and county staff about their desired improvements.

From there, McEntee and county staff will use those suggestions and other priorities to craft the action plan.

Among the ideas Gray would like to see included in the plan are developing access to restrooms, upgrading playgrounds, creating facilities for Boy and Girl Scouts to use while camping, and fixing damaged pavilions.

McEntee said the Parks Service also has priorities it tries to include in these plans, such as connecting youth to parks, bringing health into the conversation and bringing in people who don’t usually have access to parks.

Gray said she thinks of this plan as an opportunity to fix storm damage as well as a chance to rejuvenate the county’s parks, building them “bigger and better.”

In addition to uniting current and future county leaders behind a common goal for its parks, the plan will make it easier for county officials to seek additional money that will stretch taxpayer dollars devoted to the parks department — one that agencies nationwide often cut from when money is tight.

“With that, we can go out for grants for local, state and federal money,” Gray said. “We just need to get something on paper to do that. It’s my understanding that if you have a document with the National Parks Service’s approval, the grant opportunities move along easier.”

The county is already working on obtaining a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Association to repair hurricane damage. After that, it will use improvements included in the action plan to look for other grants to fund projects further down the list of priorities, Gray said.

“The county loves the parks and wants them to continue, but funds haven’t always been there,” she said. “This opportunity for more money means we can improve.”

kaitlin.bain@beaumontenterprise.com

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