In the past six years, Hurricane’s Valley Park has received twice as much capital improvement spending as the three other parks operated by the Putnam County Parks Commission combined.
Some say the parks’ funding is an example of the county’s lack of investment on the more rural north side of the Kanawha River, where the three less-funded parks are located, compared to the south, where Teays Valley and the larger Interstate 64 corridor have exploded with development.
Eleanor Mayor Walter “Fred” Halstead said the Parks Commission’s neglect led him to request, successfully, that the town be allowed this year to take over Putnam County Park. The town had been leasing out the 200 acres where the park sits in Eleanor.
According to figures the Parks Commission provided the Gazette, the 60-acre Valley Park, which contains a water park and the Parks Commission’s headquarters, received more than $640,000 in investments on capital projects in the past six years, including a $170,000 “wave action motor” replacement, a $140,000 pump replacement and a $120,000 sidewalk extension.
Esther and Norman Walter Memorial Nature Park in Red House, Hometown Park and Putnam County Park received about $310,000 combined. Of that, Putnam County Park got $220,000. Scott Williamson, parks director for Putnam, told the Gazette last month that a pool liner replacement there cost more than $230,000. On Tuesday he said the actual figure was $103,000.
Williamson defends the lopsided funding for Valley Park, pointing out that more than half the money came from tax increment finance funds the other parks can’t access. Save for $170,000 the Parks Commission borrowed, the rest came from a roughly $120,000 Division of Highways grant and Community Participation Grants funded through the Legislature. Unlike Valley Park, Putnam County Park received around $110,000 in capital improvement funding directly from the County Commission.
TIF districts freeze assessed property values at a certain date, after which governments continue to collect and spend for themselves the same amount of tax revenue from the properties while placing into a special fund the extra revenue they would have received from increasing property values. The fund is often used to finance projects that encourage further development in the area, like parks improvements, which thus push property taxes higher.
Williamson said creating such districts north of the river would prepare the north side for development upon the completion of U.S. 35.
Williamson said also that more is spent on Valley Park because most younger residents with children live in the Teays Valley area.
“You can’t make that comparison,” he said. “The vast majority of our demographics, the vast majority of our population, is in Teays Valley.”
He said he didn’t have overall attendance figures to compare both parks, but he did provide numbers showing that last year more than 10 times as many people attended the water park in Hurricane than the Eleanor park pool, which is the only county pool north of the Kanawha River.
Halstead requested $30,000 from the County Commission last month. In an interview with the Gazette, he gave a litany of complaints about the park’s condition, and particularly the condition of the pool, which he said stems from a lack of maintenance under the Parks Commission’s almost four decades of control. He said the town has had to spend more than $40,000 to get the pool open this season. Expenses included replacing fixtures for about eight of 11 bathhouse showers and rebuilding a pump that was kept in place with zip ties and ratchet straps.
“All that is repair and upkeep,” he said, “things that should’ve already been taken care of. We shouldn’t have had those expenses.”
Halstead said the town finally decided to request the takeover when the Parks Commission refused a Little League team’s request last summer to pay an exterminator to eliminate poisonous black widow spiders around the park’s baseball facilities.
“We could see their interest is not in the [Putnam] County Park,” Halstead said. “That was obvious.”
Williamson said he couldn’t break down for the Gazette how much had been spent on maintenance for individual parks over the past few fiscal years.
County Commissioner Joe Haynes, who also is a member of the Parks Commission, opposes giving Eleanor the $30,000, though the other two county commissioners said they are amenable.
Williamson told the Gazette there has been mistrust for years between the Parks and Recreation Commission and the town, part of a larger dispute between northern and southern residents.
Williamson, himself from the north side town of Buffalo, though he now lives in Teays Valley, said he tried upon becoming director in 2006 to mend the relationship. He had, for instance, diverted grant money from Valley Park to Putnam County Park the year he took over. But the poor relationship continues.
Halstead said Eleanor hopes to add a “sprayground” water recreation area, a putt-putt golf course and other features to the park. He hopes to also change the name to something like Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Park, to honor the town’s namesake.
“If Putnam County is not going to put any stock into it whatsoever,” he said, “then why keep it as Putnam County Park?”
Reach Ryan Quinn at email@example.com, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter