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Jonesboro basketball court supporters make voices heard

Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day explains to residents Monday the city’s efforts to gather public input on the future of Lee Street Park. The town has held two meetings to gather input from residents on what amenities should be included in the park. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

Jonesboro Mayor Joy Day explains to residents Monday the city’s efforts to gather public input on the future of Lee Street Park. The town has held two meetings to gather input from residents on what amenities should be included in the park. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

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Jonesboro residents score pictures of amenities which could be included in a redeveloped Lee Street Park during a public input meeting Monday. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)

JONESBORO — W.A. Winston II spends his Sunday mornings worshiping at a downtown Jonesboro “church” that might be considered a bit unorthodox.

It’s located in Lee Street Park and there are no pews. There’s only a couple of benches off to the side.

There are four orange hoops on poles. Wooden boards stand tall behind them and each hoop has a web of white cords hanging from it.

The gospel music is replaced with a “thump thump thump” sound in rhythmic precision.

“Every Sunday, at 8 a.m., I make it my business to go to church, which I consider the basketball courts,” said Winston. “Usually, older gentlemen go out there on Sunday mornings and spend about four to six hours every Sunday. Honestly, that’s the only place I go play basketball.”

But Winston’s “church” faces an uncertain future. They are the park’s most popular feature. Every night, usually between 6 and 9 p.m., dozens of young men gather at the courts to play basketball until the sun sets.

At the same time, some residents are calling for their removal as part of a planned redevelopment of the park. An initial public input survey showed a majority of respondents wanted to see the park’s most popular feature, its basketball courts, done away with.

However, supporters stood up Monday to make their voices heard in the second in a series of public input meetings on the park’s redevelopment.

Dave Murphy told his neighbors and city officials Monday the loss of the basketball court would leave the people who use the courts, particularly the young men frequently seen there in the early evening hours, with nothing to do. That would leave them with more time to get into trouble, he said.

“I like the direction you’re going in,” said Murphy. “I just hope that you all would consider keeping the basketball courts. This is a multi-generational, multi-racial community right now and we’ve got to remember to try to include as many people as we can even with the six acres that you have. I know they’re loud, boisterous, but there’s a lot of good young men that will otherwise have no place to go.”

He later added, “When you have 50 young men out there playing basketball, that’s 50 young men that’s doing something that’s wholesome.”

The crowds that gather at the basketball courts are predominately black men, but their support base cuts across racial lines and includes at least two members of the Jonesboro City Council.

Councilman Wallace Norrington, the only African-American on the council, said the park cannot be considered an amenity for only the people of Jonesboro because the city is the seat of government for Clayton County. The basketball courts draw residents from Jonesboro, other cities and unincorporated areas of the county.

Jonesboro residents have to come to terms with that, said Norrington.

“We are the county seat and whether we like it or not, county people are going to come in and use equipment,” he said.

The support base also includes residents, such as Mary Bruce, a white resident who said she and her husband, Jack Bruce, have reached a decision that the courts should be improved. The Bruces live near the park.

“We are definitely for the basketball, and for doubling the size of it,” said Mary Bruce. “Young people go over there and it is the liveliest part of the city. There is activity going on over there. They are doing good things. They are not disrupting anyone, and if you take their activities away, there may be problems that we don’t want.”

Winston said the city should include the people who use the park the most in any discussions on its future.

“I don’t think it’s a wise decision as a community, to alienate the sub-community that actually accesses the park now,” he said. “I know not everyone goes there because there are more elaborate parks available, or more tranquil parks available, but that [park] is a big part of so many people’s lives.”

Two residents spoke in opposition to the courts. The concerns of one opponent, Beverly Lester, revolved around unsafe drivers pulling out of the park’s parking lot and foul language used on the basketball courts.

“If you’re trying to have a park setting that’s more family-oriented, that tends to be a little frightful to people and it discourages families from coming there, instead of encouraging them,” said Lester.

Lester, a member of the Lee Street Park Steering Committee, wasn’t opposed to the city having public-use basketball courts, though. She suggested to Mayor Joy Day that the city should consider putting the courts at Battleground Park on Lake Jodeco Road. However, Day said it might be harder for police to patrol at that park, which is close to the eastern edge of the city.

Another opponent, former Councilman Billy Powell, said the loud sound of basketballs bouncing off the court are a problem for some residents who live near the park. He said it would be worse for him if the basketball courts are moved to the site of the park’s tennis courts — as has been suggested — because that would put them closer to his home.

Powell also said the city should pick one format for the park to become.

“We need to decide if we want a sports complex or if we want a park and garden complex because the two, to me, won’t work together,” said Powell.

The supporters have one fact to their advantage, though. Nineteen people responded to the city’s initial public input survey, and Day has already said she doesn’t consider that a wide enough sample of residents to base a decision upon. She has repeatedly said she wants more residents to offer input on the park’s future.

She repeated that call at Monday’s meeting.

“If you don’t voice your opinion, then you may not get what you want,” Day told residents.