While acknowledging that City Council holds the final authority for policy decisions, Parks & Recreation director Roderick Simmons said his department has no plans to close the Walton Street Park and Pool at 570 Oakland Rd.
“As long as I’m director, I don’t see us closing the pool or the park,” said Simmons at a Southside neighborhood meeting on Monday, Feb. 1. Simmons also said that the city had never divested a park in its history.
Worries that the city might close the aging facility sprang up following a meeting four years ago, when Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College expressed an interest in acquiring land for a second entrance to its campus, Simmons said. “We can’t control what A-B Tech says, but that doesn’t make it a city project,” explained Simmons. “And I think that’s where things went sideways with the community.”
Those community concerns led to a petition, “Save the Walton Street Park/Pool,” which gathered 845 signatures. Future plans for the renovation and maintenance of the park and pool became an issue in the 2015 City Council elections. Candidate Lindsey Simerly, who was not elected, made support for renovating the pool a key plank in her campaign platform. Keith Young, who was elected, signed the petition and also said that his campaign quietly paid for Facebook advertisements for the petition.
City Council allocated funding in last year’s budget cycle to study maintenance and renovation needs at the city’s three pools: the Walton Street pool, the Malvern Hills pool in West Asheville and the Recreation Park pool in East Asheville, Simmons said. When completed later this year, the assessments will provide a clearer picture of priorities for spending on city pools.
But the results of that study are just one piece of the puzzle, continued Simmons. Parks & Rec plans to look at the recreation needs of the Southside community as a whole. Simmons said priorities for three key facilities must be considered: the gymnasium at the Dr. Wesley Grant, Sr. Southside Center (which was promised to the community but has yet to be built), the overall design and function of the Walton Street Park and the Walton Street pool. “I want the community to decide,” said Simmons of the process for prioritizing spending on recreation facilities in the area.
Specific concerns at the Walton Street Park start with the way the facility is accessed. “It’s drive in, drive out,” explained Simmons, which means that groups “hanging out” at the entrance create an atmosphere that’s “not conducive to families” who must go through the area to get to the playground.
Council members Young and Gwen Wisler attended the meeting. Young told the small crowd that City Council had agreed at its planning retreat on Jan. 29 and 30 to take a close look at Parks & Recreation department funding. “Council has made it a priority above all to support Parks & Rec more so than we have done in the past,” said Young.
“We have all good faith to give Parks & Rec the resources they need to take care of their system,” Young continued. “The community conversations that need to happen will happen through the staff and through Mr. Simmons.”
Local activist and business owner Dee Williams urged Simmons to pursue partnerships with corporate backers to provide financial support for projects that promote health and wellness in the Southside neighborhood.
“Mission is all about quality of life,” Williams said of the hospital system, “And they say, we get folks of color, and they’re in such bad physical shape, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve got a state-of-the-art hospital or not.”
City neighborhood services coordinator Marsha Stickford asked attendees to suggest community members to include on a steering committee that will design the community process to solicit input on neighborhood residents’ recreation priorities. “We would provide support for that,” said Stickford. “You would decide where to have meetings, when to have meetings and then the best way to share information.”
Southside Advisory Board member Dee Robertson thanked Simmons and Young for clarifying the city’s plans. Robertson agreed with Simmons about the origin of the community’s worries. “Because I believe that’s where all those rumors got started, when A-B Tech attended that meeting we had that time, and I just appreciate y’all coming and clearing that up,” she said.
Priscilla Ndiaye, chair of the Southside Advisory Board, agreed and said she thought the meeting had gotten the collaboration between the community and the city back on track. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” Ndiaye said, encouraging attendees to chant the phrase along with her several times.