Aiken County's parks and recreation programs didn't receive the most glowing review from Clemson University, but that didn't discourage Assistant County Administrator Brian Sanders.
In fact, Sanders is only looking forward to the changes he foresees for the Aiken County Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department in the coming months.
“I just see a very bright future for the PRT department, and I'm very excited for what's going to happen,” said Sanders, who oversees this department.
On Tuesday, Dr. Bob Brookover with Clemson University's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management presented Council with a final report and recommendations from a strategic plan that the institution produced for the County.
The report states that the County's weaknesses are in its facilities and programs, which were described as “not of particularly good quality and many are in bad shape.” The report points out a lack in brand identity, poor marketing and dissatisfaction of County parks and programs among almost half the residents who participated in a community input session.
More funding for the parks and recreation department as well as partnerships with other entities such as the cities of North Augusta and Aiken were suggested.
At one point, it was even suggested that the County contract one or both of those two cities to operate and maintain the parks and programming. Sanders said that's merely a suggestion and is not being advocated by the County.
Working on solutions
During the presentation, Brookover said the department should focus on doing a few things really well. Sanders said that Council has discussed decreasing the number of parks the County has for several years. From the mid-1980s to early 1990s, the County went from zero to 22 parks. Small towns deeded many of their parks that were in deplorable condition to the County to renovate and maintain. Sanders said the County simply obtained too many properties at once.
Sanders said continued upgrades to Langley Pond Park will be made, and Boyd Pond has a lot of potential, which was pointed out in the report.
Focus on improving recreation programs and services were also recommended. The larger-staffed parks have their own programs that have been successful over the years, Sanders said. But in between the time the anchor programs are offered, not many smaller, more short-term programs are available. Sanders said they're working to change that.
“We've challenged staff to come up with fun and unique programs to fill in the gaps,” Sanders said. “They're energized. We've got an extremely terrific staff.”
The report states that Aiken County's Parks, Recreation and Tourism is significantly underfunded, and is ranked last in the state in per-capita spending in that department. It recommends that the County increase that department's budget by 50 percent, which Sanders said just isn't feasible.
Careful planning, Capital Project Sales Tax funds, partnerships and innovation are how the County will address that issue, Sanders said.
Sanders said recent new hires will help the department move forward in a positive direction. Mark van der Linden was recently brought on board as director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
“I think his enthusiasm can't be topped,” Sanders said. “I think his dedication to the County is apparent, and he knows every park is a representation of his work.”
The County also hired Jim Buckalew as social projects coordinator. He has served as the Southeastern district representative for the U.S. Rowing Association and a special projects coordinator several times throughout his career, Sanders said. Buckalew will work to finalize the county's water trail, further develop Langley Pond Park and redevelop Roy Warner Park in Wagener. Sanders said Buckalew's experience is “second to none.”
Sanders said he feels that the County's parks and recreation programs are going to flourish with time and a lot of hard work.
“I really do love parks and recreation – I am pumped,” Sanders said. “I have really high expectations for the next 12 months.”
Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the publication since May 2010.
She is a graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College and a native of Rustburg, Va.