As population grows, so do parks

Published 1:53 pm Monday, March 1, 2010

In the last decade, the number of things in Suffolk that make a city an enjoyable place to live — namely, places to have fun — has increased several times over.

“I’ve been here since 1994, so I’ve been able to see many changes over the last 16 years,” said Parks and Recreation director Lakita Frazier. “I can honestly say I’ve seen a change in the role parks and recreation has played in the community.”

Ten years ago, the only freestanding facility the parks and recreation department had was the Birdsong Recreation Center. Though that facility is now gone, the department has since partnered with Suffolk Public Schools to attach recreation centers to six elementary schools. In addition, the department has continually improved ball fields and playgrounds throughout the city for the use of the community.

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However, there is an accomplishment of the last decade Frazier describes as one of her department’s best projects — the East Suffolk Recreation Center.

“Whenever you provide a recreational facility or amenity or park, the community becomes closer,” Frazier said. “Just watching what has happened at East Suffolk, we’re not just seeing individuals travel from the northern end to participate in those amenities, but it’s brought the entire city together.”

The recreation center was one of the first projects completed under the City Council’s new practice of fully funding one project at a time instead of spreading available money over several projects.

“I’ve seen the priority of Council change to make sure citizens receive the best recreation that they can,” Frazier said. “The staffing has grown about 6 percent. We are reorganizing, in a way, healthy and active living. It’s not just fun and leisure.”

The East Suffolk Recreation Center combines areas for young people, seniors and everyone in between into one space. It includes a gymnasium, fitness center, game room, classrooms and activity spaces, as well as recreation offices, a kitchen, meeting rooms and a headquarters for the East Suffolk High School Alumni Association.

The welcoming space has attracted people who did not participate in recreation programs before, Frazier said.

“People that usually wouldn’t associate themselves with senior programs are now participating in our mature adult programs,” said Frazier, referring to the younger set of senior citizens. The senior program has grown more than 25 percent just since the facility’s opening about a year ago.

The department also has opened six joint-use facilities in recent years. Each facility is attached to an elementary school, saving both the schools and the parks department money on capital improvements. Those facilities host after-school programs for children to engage in creative activities until their parents get off work — and they don’t even have to be transported between programs.

For the future, Frazier is looking toward even more facilities for youth and active adults. Two skate parks — one downtown and one in North Suffolk — are in the works, as well as a trail system that would connect downtown Suffolk with Chesapeake. Both would encourage more outdoor activities, and the department envisions the bicycle trail could be used by some commuters, instead of their vehicles.

Frazier also sees the need for additional joint use facilities.

“As the population grows, we have a tremendous amount of membership,” Frazier said. “I do foresee needing another recreation center in the northern end, as well as the southern end, to maximize our resources.”

A recreation center proposed to be tied to the replacement for Southwestern and Robertson elementary schools in the southern end of the city is on hold for at least a year, as city leaders recently voted to put off construction until happier economic times.

Frazier also envisions strengthening the volunteer program in use in the recreation centers, as well as establishing a mentoring program to “connect young people to positive adult role models,” she said.

In all, Frazier hopes the second decade of the 21st century will be as prosperous for the parks department as the first.

“We have definitely come a long way in the department of parks and recreation,” Frazier said. “We look forward to a bright future.”