Six years ago, Mecklenburg County debuted Eastway Park, billing it as a would-be sportsplex with nine multipurpose athletic fields, picnic shelters, a recreation center and tennis court.
Today, it’s a soccer field, parking lot, jungle gym and volleyball net spread amid grassy fields and mounds of dirt.
We have been left behind.
Janie Sumpter, Plaza Eastway resident
It’s not the distinguished green space Janie Sumpter hoped for when, years ago, the county promised a regional park in the Plaza-Eastway corridor, northeast of NoDa. Now that the county’s renewed efforts to augment its parks, residents question if Eastway will get a much-needed boost.
“We have been left behind,” Sumpter said. “We have to beg for everything and it takes years.”
That includes the park, off Eastway Drive near The Plaza, she said. It opened in 2009 after voters in 1999 and 2004 approved its funding in separate bond measures. So far, only the first, $3.6-million phase of the project has been finished.
County officials vowed the park would get new amenities when the funding became available, documents show. But aside from the addition of a jungle gym, disc golf baskets and two pieces of art, little has happened to develop the master plan for the park – slated to include basketball courts, a spray-ground and a walking trail connecting it to the adjacent Briarwood Neighborhood Park.
“We were supposed to be a regional park,” Sumpter said. “What happened?”
The county still plans to turn Eastway Park into a regional recreational hub for Charlotte’s east side, said Jim Garges, county park and recreation director. But it’s unlikely to happen before 2018.
“Our highest priority is to finish everything we told people we were going to do” in a $250 million bond referendum in 2008 that funded other parks, trails and greenways, he said. “When you do regional parks, you can do it in phases.”
Take the Mecklenburg County Regional Sportsplex in Matthews for example, he said. The first phase was finished in 2013, and construction on the second phase started this June.
People there “had to put with” the delays, Garges said. “It’s all about balance and I think we do a good job of trying to balance things with everybody else’s needs. If you’re on the wrong end of the balance, you just don’t agree.”
Many county park and recreation projects faced strong headwinds during the recession and stopped midway, Garges said. But the downturn is over and the county has poured more money into parks and facilities, including $130 million for 68 park projects underway this year.
Eastway Park isn’t one of them.
Lee Jones, the park department’s director of capital planning services, said the agency plans to add Eastway in its next bundle of requests for capital projects, likely next year.
“If we have enough funds, where we can open parks and not have to do it in phases, then we’ll do that,” Garges said. “That has not been the case in the past. It doesn’t mean things won’t happen in Eastway.”
Anticipation turns to frustration
Maxine Eaves’ vision for her neighborhood park is a big one: Facilities for meetings, a center for after-school programs, a manicured walking trail, a place where senior citizens can exercise and a point of pride that will engage youth and curb crime.
They find money to do any of those other projects.
Maxine Eaves, Plaza Eastway resident
Eaves, former president of the Plaza Eastway Partners/Northeast Community Organization, has written to county leaders, asking them to turn attention back to Eastway. Their lack of progress has left her unsatisfied.
“They find money to do any of those other projects,” she said, referring to the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center and Romare Bearden Park.
Lena Pickens and her husband, Bill, live in Hampshire Hills, one of more than a dozen neighborhoods that surround Eastway Park. She was neighborhood association president in 2003 when the county held workshops resulting in the park’s master plan.
There was a lot of excitement around the finished product, she said. That’s why people are frustrated.
“Many of the neighborhood presidents, we talked among ourselves and concurred we kind of felt like we had been left out of the loop,” she said.
I don’t understand how we lost our sense of priority for this park.
Bill Pickens, Hampshire Hills resident
Bill Pickens, a former member of the park and recreation commission, said he knows how parks are selected for bond packages and understands the downturn stymied the project. But “I don’t understand how we lost our sense of priority for this park,” he said.
Debate about philosophy
Garges said he respects their complaints. “The good thing is everybody wants more parks and greenways. They just want it now, and so do I.”
I sincerely believe it’s better to try and have more places for people to go than fewer.
Jim Garges, Mecklenburg County parks and recreation director
His department’s philosophy, he said, is to plant new parks in areas that don’t have them, even if others go unfinished for years.
“As much as I’d like to come in and finish a park completely sometimes, on the same token, if I do that, there might be three or four areas of the county that go without any,” he said. “I sincerely believe it’s better to try and have more places for people to go than fewer.”
Commissioners this month approved a park and recreation master plan that calls for developing 268 miles of new trails – some of them in under-served areas of the county – over the next 30 years.
Although he voted for the plan, Commissioner George Dunlap voiced concern about parks in his district that start but take years to finish. “If you promised somebody a park, deliver it, and then (the) other people wait until their turn comes,” he said last week.
Garges said a park’s size affects how fast it’s finished. Eastway Park covers 90 acres – much larger than parks in uptown or other neighborhoods.
“You can’t do half of Romare Bearden and you can’t do half of First Ward and you wouldn’t do half of a tiny neighborhood park that’s 5 acres,” Garges said.
Those technicalities do little to quell hurt feelings for residents waiting on a promise. “We want to have the quality of life like all communities in Charlotte,” Sumpter said. “We want to have stuff.”