By Collin Brooks
The booming success that is visible at Rotary Park, suddenly one of Johnson City’s most popular destinations, has provided the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis with a vivid map to the city’s future.
Ellis, who was named Director of Parks and Recreation on March 18, said even he was a bit surprised with the quick success the boundless playground and splash pad has had on the park.
“We anticipated a lot of interest in the facility once we got it completed, I’m not quite sure, to be honest, that we thought we’d experience the growth we’ve experienced in such a short amount of time,” Ellis said. “It’s very, very popular.”
Ellis said that there were times this summer that more than 300 people have been inside the splash pad and playground area. He also mentioned that the city has had no trouble renting out the six pavilions that sit on the Rotary Park property, behind the splash pads. In the near future a few shaded picnic tables will be added to the splash pad area. Permanent bathrooms are also on tap for the park.
None of this would have been possible without the complete buy-in of the city commission and city management of going back to the basics, Ellis said.
“Going back to the basics in recreation is playgrounds,” Ellis said. “The city made a firm commitment to give us the monies needed to enhance, improve and replace the playgrounds in the city,” Ellis said.
He noted the improvements to Winged Deer’s playground on the lake front, inside the softball park at Winged Deer, and the new playground equipment at Kiwanis. They are also finishing off the new surface at Carver Park, which includes a new playset. Next on the list is improvements to Metro-Kiwanis.
“When you look at Rotary and you look at the playground unit at Winged Deer on the weekend, the kid’s and their enjoyment is at an all-time high,” Ellis said.
Some of the future plans for the city include a park at the Memorial Park Community Center facility and they’re also looking at the potential of adding another splash pad to a park in the city. He said some groups have approached the city in helping match a certain amount for a new splash pad, which came in at a cost of around $85,000 at Rotary Park.
Other, less expensive fountains or spray features in city parks could be another alternative for the city. Ellis also mentioned outdoor fitness equipment that would allow a citizen to run to a park and have an outdoor workout on a machine like a fitness station. This could be something the city looks into, similar to the machine that is currently located at Willow Springs Park.
“At some point, I would like to see us explore the possibility of placing (the machines), whether it be downtown at King Commons or Founder’s Park or whether it be in one of the parks in our system. But a lot of cities are going to that.”
Two soccer fields at Civitan Park will be renovated this year in order to address drainage problems. But the city is also looking into the possibility of adding 6-8 rectangle fields and 5-7 diamond fields. The new fields are needed as the current baseball and softball leagues operate at 85 percent capacity, while the soccer organizations are near capacity as well.
“With the youth programs going on in town, the little leagues, the girls softball, tee ball and then you come to your only five adult sized fields, which are (at Winged Deer). Monday through Thursdays we are just cramming the schedule to try and accommodate our citizens.”
This spring season there were 80 teams that played men, women or co-ed last year and in some cases they are forced to host five games a night per field. That quickly makes the schedule push late into the night during weekdays.
That being said, Ellis mentioned that adding new fields would be most beneficial to city residents.
“First and foremost we have to have the accommodations for our everyday taxpayers and citizens to be able to play their games on a somewhat accommodating schedule during the week,” Ellis said.
One great shining light for the city and their Parks and Recreation Department is the Memorial Park Community Center, that offers senior activities during the morning and turns into a community center as children get out of school and it grows later in the day.
The Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department took the senior program under their wing a few years ago and Ellis said it is a relationship that has worked well.
“That’s an untapped market for us, because seniors were always a department of their own,” Ellis said, “since they’ve been placed under our umbrella, and of course we have the multi-generational facility in Memorial Park. It’s really been a blessing for us, because now we see children, parents and grandparents participating and we are trying to bridge that gap.”
A couple of weeks ago, the Recreation Department took a bus of grandparents and their grandchildren to Asheville for the day. Some senior citizen members that have found a home in the new billiards room are planning to have training sessions with youth members, in order to teach them the rules of the game and technique.
“So we are starting to see that gap being bridged,” Ellis said. “And we have a lot of talented staff on both ends, the recreation side and the senior side and they work very, very well together.”
Ellis is heading into his 39th year working for the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department and he said he has been amazed to watch the city and it’s parks and recreation department grow.
“To see things grow to the magnitude that they have,” Ellis said. “It’s really been a blessing. I can’t thank the commission and the management and even our staff. Everyone is a part of this.”