Priorities: Trails, pools

Published 6:25 pm Saturday, June 13, 2015

The biggest priorities for Suffolk’s Parks and Recreation Department should be walking and biking trails and an indoor swimming facility, according to a consultant hired to produce a master plan for the department.

Neelay Bhatt of Pros Consulting gave a presentation on the consultant’s findings during the June 3 work session. The final plan should be complete in a few months, he said.

The determination of priorities was made based on the unmet needs and importance of facilities that survey respondents reported, as well as the consultant’s own evaluation, Bhatt said.

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About 370 people completed the surveys this spring, Bhatt told the City Council. Along with demographic information and the results of community input meetings, they painted an important picture of the department’s strengths and weaknesses as well as where it needs to go in the future.

The city’s population is projected to rise to more than 95,000 by 2028, Bhatt told City Council. That means the department will need more capacity to serve the growing number of people.

The vast majority of the city’s population is families with young children or older people, Bhatt added. That’s not going to change as time marches on but rather will become more pronounced, he predicted.

“We’ve got to find a way to balance the two ends of the spectrum,” Bhatt said. “We have to focus on a multi-generational approach.”

Race also plays a factor in which facilities and programs the population finds important, Bhatt added.

Joking on his own heritage, Bhatt said, “Brown men don’t dunk. I’ll play cricket all day, though.”

The public input sessions gave consultants a clearer picture of what the community sees as the department’s strengths and weaknesses.

Its strengths include its variety of program offerings, talented staff, affordable activities, partnerships it has developed with area entities, and the East Suffolk Recreation Center.

Weaknesses, however, include transportation and connectivity, aquatic facilities, lack of many freestanding facilities, accessibility to the Nansemond River and lack of a sports tournament facility.

Participants in the public input sessions identified their single most important priorities as connectivity, economic development, an aquatic facility, a multi-use, standalone recreation facility, water access and marketing.

The survey brought much encouraging news, Bhatt said. Of the respondents, 71 percent said they have visited a Suffolk Parks and Recreation park or facility in the previous 12 months. Of those, 59 percent said they visited once a month or more often. Only 5 percent said they visited less than once a year.

Playgrounds, walking and hiking trails and picnic areas were the most popular facilities, according to the results. The most popular and important parks and buildings included Sleepy Hole and Bennett’s Creek parks, the East Suffolk Recreation Center and Constant’s Wharf and Marina.

A quarter of respondents said their top concern is that facilities are not distributed equally throughout the city, a perception that Bhatt said should be addressed.

“You very well know sometimes perception becomes people’s reality,” he told City Council.

Other high concerns included security or safety issues, a lack of facilities to meet needs, maintenance and cleanliness and outdated equipment. But almost 40 percent of respondents said they had no concerns at all.

The top facility priorities identified by the consultant, after walking and biking trails and indoor swimming, included indoor walking and running tracks, indoor fitness facilities, small neighborhood parks, playgrounds, riverfront trails and outdoor water spray parks.

Program priorities include adult fitness and wellness, festivals, concerts, youth learn to swim programs, races and senior adult programs, among other things.

Bhatt said the next steps include visioning sessions, equity maps to determine the level of fair distribution of facilities, and more.

Bhatt also discussed how to pay for new parks and recreation facilities. Private funding, such as crowdfunding and naming rights, are becoming more popular, he said.

An action plan will be presented with the final report, he said.