Start thinking ahead

Published 9:41 pm Tuesday, June 16, 2015

There was a certain serendipitous aspect to the fact that last week’s Suffolk City Council meeting featured both a cadre of citizens clamoring for a new riverside park and a consultant’s report identifying access to the water as one of the city’s most-needed recreational resources.

The two items were not directly connected — in fact, the consultant’s report on the status of a master plan for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation took place during the afternoon work session, a couple of hours ahead of council’s controversial vote on a North Main Street apartment complex proposed for a site where many residents had said they’d prefer the park. Council subsequently voted to allow the apartments.

However, the park supporters have vowed not to give up their quest for a waterfront park facility in the downtown area, and the results of the consultant’s survey of Suffolk residents should give them support in their efforts if and when properties that could support a park come onto the market.

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The survey portrayed respondents’ perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the parks department. Among the strengths are its variety of program offerings, talented staff, affordable activities, partnerships it has developed with area entities, and the East Suffolk Recreation Center.

Among the weaknesses are transportation and connectivity, aquatic facilities, shortage of freestanding facilities, accessibility to the Nansemond River and lack of a sports tournament facility.

Survey respondents also identified their top priorities for recreational facilities. Those included walking and biking trails, indoor swimming, indoor walking and running tracks, indoor fitness facilities, small neighborhood parks, playgrounds, riverfront trails and outdoor water spray parks.

Suffolk has great existing park facilities, and 71 percent of the people surveyed said they had used one of the city’s parks or recreation centers within the past year, so the facilities are clearly in demand. What the city needs, based on the survey responses, is a greater variety of recreational opportunities.

That’s the kind of conclusion one might expect from a survey of a city growing as quickly as Suffolk. The city is attracting people from a variety of urban areas, where residents are used to an array of recreational opportunities. Many of those folks arrive in Suffolk and wish the city had similar amenities.

The parks and recreation master plan may not have come soon enough to help folks make their vision of Obici Park a reality on the site of the former hospital on North Main Street. But there’s still time to make the plan useful in the development of the adjacent Virginia Department of Transportation site whenever that agency moves to another Hampton Roads location.

Suffolk would do well to put the Obici Park supporters together with parks and recreation officials to develop a couple of alternatives that are based on the master plan and can be tucked away for future reference. That way, they will be ahead of the game if and when an appropriate property becomes available.