Cleveland Considers Formation Of Parks & Recreation Authority

The Cleveland community could be the first township in Johnston County to form their own parks and recreation district.

Discussions started in February when Elizabeth Booker “Bet” Lawson and her husband, Dewey Lawson, appeared before Johnston County Commissioners wanting to gift a 12.7 acre tract of land at the intersection of Polenta and Matthews Road.  In return for the free land gift, appraised at $336,000, the county would have to turn the land into a Community Park.

The County studied the idea but eventually rejected the park plan. But out of those meetings, Cleveland community leaders began discussions on forming their own Parks and Recreation Authority.

Denton Lee, the unofficial chairman and spokesperson for the Cleveland study group, began investigating how parks and rec districts work across the country and how it could work in Cleveland. “This community needs to begin self-governance and this would be a great starting point, ” Lee told WTSB News.  The group of Cleveland Community leaders included representatives of the Greater Cleveland Chamber of Commerce, the Cleveland Athletic Association, Pop Warner Football, the Cleveland Rotary Club, and the Cleveland Fire Department, as well as prominent community business owners, farmers, and developers.

The group has received $30,000 from the state to study the formation of a Cleveland Parks and Recreation Authority. The authority would have to be approved by the NC General Assembly and Representative Donna White of Clayton has promised to work closely and help the organization.

If legislation can be approved in early 2018, a referendum could be put before Cleveland voters in November 2018 to vote on forming the district. The recommended boundaries would follow the current boundaries of the Cleveland Volunteer Fire Department, known as the McLemore Fire District.

A number of public meetings would be held prior to a referendum.

If approved, the Authority would have the ability to tax the McLemore community to pay for parks and recreation services.  Even if the parks and rec authority is formed, no immediate changes are planned for the Cleveland Athletic Association and Pop Warner Football Association.

“The Cleveland Athletic Association and the Pop Warner Football Association provide excellent programs for youth baseball, softball, soccer, basketball, volleyball, and football,” Lee said. “They do all of this for a community of 27,000 with volunteer leadership and coaches. They do an incredible job. We don’t anticipate that changing, or certainly not in the short term.”

“The community is so far behind in acquiring park and recreation space, the majority of our funding will need to go toward buying available land and developing and maintaining facilities. By partnering with the Athletic and Pop Warner associations, they can continue to provide the programs while the new recreation district focuses on acquiring and developing facilities, and applying for grant monies that can supplement the taxes we will pay. As for recreational services, we would anticipate developing more athletic fields for these associations to use and to create passive recreational opportunities for families by building and maintaining playgrounds, walking/biking trails, picnic areas, and open space that you would find at any city park.”

The McLemore Fire District contains properties valued at $2 billion. For every penny of tax collected in a parks and rec district, it would create $200,000 in revenue.

“Before we pay a single penny in additional taxes, the community will have the opportunity to cast a ballot to decide if want to self-fund these improvements or if we want to maintain the status quo with no means to improve our quality of life with new parks and recreational facilities,” Lee said. “We anticipate asking voters to approve a parks and recreation tax somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 cents. At this rate a home valued at $100,000 would pay $40 more a year in property taxes, and have the privilege of enjoying all the amenities created by the new district. Because of our relationship with the Athletic and Pop Warner Associations, the majority of these funds can be used to purchase property and develop parks, and not be spent on high administrative costs. Initially, a parks and recreation director will be needed, but we anticipate few additional administrative costs.”

Lee said the Cleveland community is so frustrated by the lack of recreational facilities he anticipates strong support for the new parks and rec tax district, even though it will mean paying a small additional fee.

“The County is not going to do it for us, so if we want it, we have to pay for it.”

Unlike most counties in North Carolina, Johnston County does not have a parks and recreation department. Johnston County has chosen to relegate the acquisition, development, and maintenance of parks and recreation to the incorporated towns within the county. As a result, unincorporated areas, like the Cleveland Community, are left with few sources from which to fund quality of life improvements like parks, walking trails, athletic fields, and open spaces. While the towns around Cleveland are investing millions in parks and recreation for their citizens, there isn’t a single public access playground, walking trail, or picnic table in the Cleveland Community of 27,000.

“We are having to turn away children who want to play because we are out of places to hold practices and games”, said Scott Janes, Commissioner of the Cleveland Pop Warner Football Association. That sentiment was also echoed by Michael Knott, President of the Greater Cleveland Athletic Association. “This is an exciting opportunity for the Cleveland Community to self-determine its future direction for improving the quality of life in our Community.

“Giving citizens the opportunity to vote on a new tax district where the funds will be used to acquire land and create recreational opportunities is the right thing to do”, says Denton Lee. He added, “We look forward to working with the County Manager, the County Attorney, and local legislators to authorize the formation of the new district.”