In Stanley, off Blacksnake Road, Harper Park is coming along nicely.
As described on the town’s website: “…construction is evolving rapidly.”
How Stanley got its first recreational complex would make a good G-rated movie. The story is family-oriented and inspiring.
Simply stated, the people wanted a park – wanted it badly enough to donate time and money. And despite a tight economy, they pulled it off.
Stanley Mayor Frank Guida recently told me the story – going back 12 years, to when the town parks and recreation department started selling peanuts at ballgames.
Stanley had a big recreation program but no public parks of its own.
Activities were farmed out here and there. Ball teams played at places like Kiser elementary school or county-owned fields. The town leased the school’s old gym for basketball. (In time, the gym would be turned over to the town)
Folks in Stanley dreamed of having a park some day. And peanuts would help pay for it. All the profits from the sales went into an ever-growing park fund.
Saving money for a park was the idea of Stanley Parks and Recreation Director Tug Deason.
An Observer story in June 2000 described how 25 limousines showed up in Stanley offering rides to a Charlotte Knights game to every team that sold 500 bags of peanuts. They ended up raising more than $30,000.
About five years ago, the town completed a master plan for a recreation program and started looking for park land.
They found a 19-acre parcel, but it was dotted with power lines. While the property wasn’t ideal, it was the best available option at the time.
Before the deal went through, Guida got a call asking him to brief two newcomers about noteworthy projects Stanley had in the works.
The newcomers were Ron and Katherine Harper, former Charlotteans and former owners of a flexographic printing business. The couple had made numerous contributions to charitable causes. (In 2010, the Harpers pledged $2 million to Gaston County Schools’ campaign to equip every classroom in the district with the new SMART Board technology.)
Guida recalls that when he mentioned a town clock to Ron Harper, “ he said ‘put me down for $5,000.’”
A few months later, Harper called Guida and asked what other projects needed help.
Guida explained about the park situation, and Harper offered to buy the land – a $59,000 investment – and give it to the town.
At this point, Guida said, town leaders decided the land under consideration wasn’t what they wanted. A property with power lines just wouldn’t do for a park.
So they backed away. The park project was in limbo.
“We were about to give up,” Guida said. “And then we came across some more land and began negotiations.”
Unlike the first property, this 18-plus-acre track on Blacksnake Road had no power lines.
“It had 995 feet of road frontage,” Guida said. “It was beautiful.”
Even though “the economy was super-bad,” Stanley bought the land for about $100,000, Guida said. The money came from Harper and peanut sales.
The total bill for the park is $1.4 million. Again, peanut sales helped out, along with a $500,000 state grant.
The rest was raised – from corporations, businesses, individuals, golf tournaments, yard sales, bean bag competition, donkey basketball. Ron Harper took part in a womanless wedding – and donated $45,000 to the park project at the end of the project.
Guida said local folks pitched in with the work, making a $300,000 in-kind contribution.
Harper Park, scheduled to open in the spring, has two baseball fields, a huge basketball court, picnic shelter, paved walking trail, nature trail, playground, splash board and dog park.
The flagpole will have a plaque in honor of Lance Cpl. Nick O’Brien, a local Marine killed in Afghanistan in 2011. His dad works part-time in the recreation department and helped build the park.
Guida thinks Harper Park is a jewel. So do others. It’s already been selected as the site of a statewide Little League baseball tournament in July.
What happened in Stanley is an example of what can happen anywhere when a community works together for a common cause.