Robert Moses, the imperious titan of New York City’s parks, called them “the outward visible symbol of democracy.” Moses’ observation is ironic because during his 40-year career he ruthlessly consolidated and deployed the powers of the state to build that city’s sprawling system.
At the drop of a hat, he invoked eminent domain and took private property to his ends. Moses became as much of an authoritarian — he was never elected to public office — as a free but inattentive people would permit. Still, he shaped today’s much-loved network of parks, playgrounds, gardens, swimming pools, beaches, gyms, rinks and lakes that serve New York City.
He accomplished all of it with unified planning, management and financing.
A city or region’s commitment to its parks is, in a sense, its commitment to democracy. Scrupulous libertarians might blanch at the idea, but it is always the public’s desire that public funds are used to create parks. It is the popular will.
One of the few times I rejected the premise of a Charleston Daily Mail editorial position was its lambasting of certain public expenditures on parks and recreation. My response would have been, among other things, that there is more to government than its scandalous mismanagement of its public schools. Parks at least do not contribute to the rate of illiteracy.
Imagine the Kanawha Valley without public parks, pitches, arenas, forests or fields. There would be little opportunity for most to enjoy open spaces or nature. Only the rich would have ample access for sports, leisure and taking in the fresh air.
Yet, the Kanawha Valley’s historical commitment to its parks has been more casual than managed. Because so many towns and cities exercise dominion over their parks, the region’s park-building efforts have been diffuse, uncoordinated and under-capitalized.
Coonskin Park, with nearly 1,000 acres under Kanawha County’s management, was created in two days from the leftovers of the massive construction project of the airport in the late 1940s. A planned expansion for Yeager Airport would bury many of its picnic sites, shelters and trails. The airport is seeking $168 million in federal funds for a runway extension, including $15.5 million for a fund to mitigate Coonskin’s losses and 100 acres of off-park land.
Charleston, though the largest and wealthiest city, has a weak inventory of parks. Cato Park contains a nice swimming pool but on one of the highest points in the city and a meager nine-hole golf course prone to flooding. Daniel Boone Park is wedged between a highway and the river remote from the city’s neighborhoods. Danner Meadow Park, built on a remnant parcel leftover from construction of I-64, is accessible mostly to the residents of the Fort Hill neighborhood in which it is located. The West Side flats have virtually no parks.
Dunbar has an enormous and largely unknown park. Wine Cellar Park includes a seven-acre lake stocked with fish. That city also has a 40-acre hilltop park.
St. Albans and Nitro have a few parks and some swimming pools and playgrounds.
Of the cities, South Charleston has invested the most in its parks. Little Creek is a huge spread of fields and shelters. It includes a soap box derby track. The city took over an 18-hole golf course and is attempting a trail system. When Charleston closed its ice rink, the city gladly turned over its blueprints for a new one to South Charleston, which tackled the project with gusto.
Then there is the nine-hole Shawnee golf course in Institute. The Kanawha County Commission spent $18 million to convert the flat expanse of 180 acres into soccer, baseball and softball fields. It is costly and impressive.
The parks of Kanawha County, regardless who owns and operates them, are a grab-bag of assets. Some are well-used and some not so much. Some towns need more and better parks but can’t afford planning for them. The Upper Kanawha Valley and Cross Lanes are deprived of investment.
Consolidating Kanawha County’s parks into a unified system could be a successful test case for inter-governmental cooperation that everyone keeps talking about but no one does anything to advance. Unlike merging towns and cities, bringing all of the county’s parks together would avoid the thing that most politicians fear more than harm to life: losing their jobs.
Doing so would spread the managerial and financial burdens over all of the people who use the parks, ignoring town and city boundaries that golfers, tennis players and soccer teams already ignore.
There is precedent. The Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District has elected board members and has operating and capital budgets that stand alone from the towns, cities and county that it serves.
Robert Moses would have grabbed at the chance. Will Kanawha Countians at least consider it?