By Joel Hall
Information gleaned from a series of recent town hall meetings shows that safety concerns and a lack of advertising are keeping Clayton residents from utilizing the county's parks.
Throughout the month of February, the Parks and Recreation Department hosted a series of public meetings to gather citizen input to be included in the department's 10-year Comprehensive Master Plan. While the information will not be compiled until late April or early May, there are several reoccurring themes in the data, according to Parks and Recreation Director Detrick Stanford.
"Some people didn't feel good walking around the parks, because there are some pockets where unsavory things could happen," said Stanford. He said that several people in the study feared being victims of crime, due to a lack of lighting and patrol officers in certain areas of the parks.
In addition to lighting and a physical presence of security officers, participants in the study were concerned by a lack of advertising about the parks and their related programs.
"We're finding that a lot of constituents don't know about the parks, and some of the people who know about the parks, don't know about the programming that is actually taking place there," said Stanford. He described a "disconnect" between the people interested in the programs and the people facilitating them.
Stanford added that having more specific programming for preschool and teenage children is "a common thread" in the study.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell said he is "delighted" about the feedback and would like to see Parks and Recreation offer a greater variety of programs.
"What I am a hearing from teens is that they want something to do, but they want something beyond basketball and play," said Bell. "I'm a firm believer that our children can do more than run, jump, sing, and dance."
Bell said he is currently working with former state representative Gail Buckner to raise $300,000 in community-generated funds to bring Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta to Clayton County. He believes the organization would be able to offer more extracurricular activities to the county's young people.
"They are trying to raise $300,000 to make that happen, but it has to be a private initiative," said Bell. "I urge citizens to get involved with that to make it happen."
In regard to park security, Bell said that in 2005, he suggested hiring the group of Sheriff's deputies fired by Sheriff Victor Hill to be part of a Park Safety Force, under the Clayton County Police Department. He said the idea of installing Park Police "is still on the table."
Bell also expressed a desire to create a map of the county's "passive and recreational" parks, which would be available in hard copy and on the county's web site.
"I would like to see it available in public places," said Bell. "I would like to see it on our C-TRAN buses ... I would like to see it in grocery stores and other places people frequent."
Commissioner Wole Ralph said the study will provide the county with valuable information as it goes forward with building new recreation centers.
"Having that kind of input is really critical to all of these services that we are offering," said Ralph. "It shows what we are doing right and what we are doing wrong. Traditionally, we have been looking at police, fire, and code enforcement ... perhaps there needs to be more emphasis on park patrol."
While not finalized, Ralph said he has asked architects designing the new recreation center, which will be built in Hampton, to consider adding a new preschool facility. The aim of the facility would be to engage parents and their children in interactive activities.
"We've asked for the architect to take a serious look at that," said Ralph. "This may be a little different from the centers that we have built recently. We have a large portion of our community that are young people ,and we need to have more proactive programming for them."
Ralph said he would work with Parks and Recreation to create more programs that offer tutorial services, occupational services, and life-skills training to young people.
Commissioners Virginia Gray, Sonna Singleton, and Michael Edmondson could not be reached for comment.