When it was time for mat ball, everyone in the building either chose teams or picked a spot on the bleachers to watch the fun.
The pitcher made sure to keep the runners in check by threatening them with a teasing ball throw in their direction, keeping them glued to their mats. But in the end, the runners seemed to be worried in vain — the pitcher was far more concerned with striking out the taunting opposing team than focusing on tagging out base runners.
Mat ball is by far the most popular game of the day camp at Norwood Hodges, said Kevin Baker, the community center director. Summer day camps take place during the summer while school is out to give kids somewhere to be and something to do with their time.
At Carver Community Center, day campers spent their mornings in reading programs at its library while seniors came together as part of Anniston’s “Golden Agers” to get free farmer’s market coupons. At South Highland Community Center, the only one without a day camp, kids and teens alike hung around to talk or wandered in and out of the large, air-conditioned gym to shoot some hoops before heading out to the pool or playgrounds down the street.
The Parks and Recreation Department makes it possible for kids and seniors to have somewhere to go during the day to be together and have fun, whether playing bingo or skipping rope, by providing the facilities and services needed to smoothly operate community centers, public parks, swimming pools for Anniston and the surrounding areas. These facilities are not only places for recreation, but also homes for after-school programs, sports and structured activities for school-age children and seniors, and have been serving the city as such for decades.
According to the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA), Anniston has been the state’s biggest spender per capita for recreational and cultural expenditures for at least the past decade.
But now the Parks and Recreation Department is looking to expand its services to the community and change the role it plays. PARD is revamping and reallocating its facilities, services and resources in an attempt to bring revenue to Anniston through drawing visitors and economic growth to the city by improving the area’s quality of life and attracting countywide visitors to new centers.
Value of PARD
Anniston retained the title of the state’s highest spender in a PARCA quarterly report for 2008 which stated the city spent nearly $260 per person on things such as community centers, parks, senior programs and other recreational and cultural services. The next highest spender was Florence, in northwest Alabama, which came in just shy of $180 per person.
In 2008, Anniston spent more than $3.8 million on parks and recreation. That equaled 12.8 percent of Anniston’s total city budget for the year. Anniston has, on average, spent 13 percent of its yearly annual budget on parks and recreation since 1984.
In comparison, the money spent on the police and fire departments in 2008 was $5.6 million or 18.7 percent of the total budget and $3.9 million, or 12.9 percent of total money spent, respectively.
But all of this money spent has a larger purpose than just the maintenance of recreational facilities. PARD director Steven Folks and City Manager Don Hoyt hope to use parks and recreation as a launching pad for bringing in new sources of revenue for the city.
Money spent on PARD has even more meaning when taking into account that Anniston has been shrinking for the past several decades. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city reached its peak population in the 1960. Since then, the number of residents has steadily declined. For example, 26,623 people lived in Anniston in 1990, but 23,662 people lived in the city in 2008, while the percentage of the total budget spent on the PARD has largely remained the same. In 1989, the city spent $1,940,915 on its PARD and in 2008 it spent $3,848,261 on the department.
Former City Manager George Monk proposed in 2006 to close three of Anniston’s community centers, citing a report in 2000 that said for its size, the city was over-budgeted for recreational facilities.
Lenlock Community Center, along with Wiggins Community Center and Glen Addie Community Center, were the three recreation sites originally proposed for closure. At the time, the idea was voted down by the City Council, but since then, two of the three centers in the plan have been let go by PARD.
Glen Addie was turned over to the Housing Authority in 2009 after the City Council voted to let the center go to balance the budget. The Housing Authority in turn gave management of the facility over to the local branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs.
Lenlock will close on Oct.1 as part of what Parks and Recreation director Steven Folks calls a “streamlining process” of having one, well-staffed and equipped community center for each ward in Anniston. Its staff will move to the new senior and therapeutics center on McClellan, and its building and land will become Longleaf Botanical Gardens. After Lenlock’s closing, the city will have four parks-and-recreation-owned community centers: Carver in west Anniston, Norwood Hodges in Golden Springs, South Highland in south Anniston, and Wiggins at McClellan.
Yet, the transfer of the centers does not mean they no longer serve a function in the community. Folks said the centers have not really closed and instead serve Anniston through organizations other than PARD.
“We’re not talking about impacting the community by closing anything up,” he said.
Instead, the money spent on parks and recreation is a reflection of what the people find important.
“It’s all a matter of priorities,” Hoyt said.
PARD and the community
To Folks, the absence of community centers and other such services would be more detrimental to the city than spending the money needed to maintain and upkeep them. Quality of life for senior citizens would suffer and the crime rate would increase, he said.
“Where would they go? They would be in their homes,” Folks said. “What would happen to their minds if they didn’t have somebody to go to?”
Folks said the saddest thing he remembers was going to the funeral of one of the seniors who attended Carver. “Do you know there was no one sitting on the side of the family? He had one person who sat on that side. His whole family was that community center,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, the youngest residents of Anniston also benefit from the centers. After-school programs, tutoring, summer day camps, sports teams and other structured programming provides kids a place to go after school. Folks said that without those services, “that kid would be out in that gang, be out there robbing somebody’s house, or doing some of those things.”
Darius Cottingham, a 17-year-old senior at Anniston High, said he remembers growing up not far from Norwood Hodges Community Center and that the center played a big role in his love of basketball and in giving him options.
“It opened up opportunities for me because I got to volunteer at the summer day camp and by doing that it has gotten me a job now,” he said. “Mostly, it kept us out of a lot of trouble.”
Cottingham is a member of the Anniston High basketball team and plans to attend Alabama A&M University in Huntsville and major in mechanical engineering or play basketball once he graduates.
Kia English, another former charge of Anniston’s after-school programs, lives in Anniston and teaches first grade at Oxford Elementary.
She said her fondest memory of the program was a dance that was held for the kids and the tutoring program that helped her deal with her schoolwork. If the kids did well in tutoring, they were rewarded with permission to go to the park to play basketball or other games.
“It was just a place where we hung out as kids,” English said. “It’s sort of like home.”
Hoyt considers PARD to be a vital part of the city’s infrastructure, just like storm drains or traffic flow that affects the quality of life and economic development of an area, and thinks that an improved quality of life will attract more people to this area.
“I always revert back to when I came here, to McClellan, from Germany with three young boys I was raising,” Folks said. “The two things I asked when I got here, two things that concerned me about my kids … were ‘where are my kids going to be educated at, and where will my kids play?’”
The expanding role
The theory behind using parks and recreation as a means to draw revenue begins with the idea that by improving the quality of life in Anniston, major businesses will be interested in coming to the area. Companies look at such factors when determining where to locate because they want to attract the best potential employees, Hoyt said. By improving the quality of life, Anniston is more likely to attract jobs, he said.
This idea, combined with readily available money through the federal stimulus package, has lead to rapid project expansion by PARD in the past couple of years. Some of the department’s smaller projects include new tile or hardwood gym floors in Carver, Norwood Hodges and South Highland community centers in 2008. In addition to work at the centers, many area parks have received facelifts, bathrooms and rental facilities.
But those projects represent just the beginning. This year PARD started on three new major renovation and construction projects: the renovation of the old youth center on former Fort McClellan land into a therapeutics and senior center, the construction of a sports complex at Miller Gym, also at McClellan, and renovation of the gym itself along with construction of a competitive and recreational aquatics center that will be a part of the building.
Folks said the locations of the centers, especially the aquatics center and sports complex, are important. “With the [Eastern Parkway] coming across, it’s really going to be accessible from so many other areas,” he said.
Ease of access on a busy crossroads will make it not only available to Anniston residents, but to visitors from the surrounding communities as well. The goal of the new aquatics center, said project architect Jay Jenkins of Jenkins Munroe Jenkins Architecture, is to serve all of Calhoun County, not just one city.
The location of the sports complex will tie in well with the development of Longleaf Botanical Gardens, which begins this October when the Anniston Museum Complex takes over Lenlock Community Center. Both attractions hope to pull in tourism through visitors to the gardens and competitive swim meets. This tourism has the potential to generate money for local restaurants and hotels.
Out-of-towners using Anniston’s recreational facilities is not uncommon; all facilities are open for use by anyone, Hoyt said.
“There’s a lot of folks that are coming into Anniston from outside of the city limits to take advantage of our recreation facilities because they don’t have them,” he said.