By JOHN KIENER
With ten parks consisting of approximately 150 acres and numerous walking trails, the Town of Jonesborough operates a Parks & Recreation Department with an operating budget of $842,000.
Rachel Conger, the Department’s Director, said the position has “a lot of diversity. It makes the job enjoyable.”
While Conger who has been with the Town for 10 years said she does not micro-manage, she does “love to be involved in everything. Every week I have a schedule. I need to get it down on paper in my own handwriting. It keeps me organized.”
In addition to the parks, trails and youth sport programs, the town offers a variety of indoor activities at the Jonesborough Historic Visitors Center, the McKinney Center, the Senior Center and the Jonesborough Repertory Theater. The Heritage Alliance assists the town with museums at the Chester Inn and Visitors Center while maintaining the Oak Hill School art, radio programs, music and theater along with educational programs for both the young and senior citizens are offered on a regular basis. The Recreation Department also helps with the staging and performance of a variety of special events including Jonesborough Days, Music on the Square, Easter, Halloween Haunts and Christmas.
Town Administrator Bob Browning said he knows the secret to the town’s present-day success in providing recreational opportunities that offer something for everyone. “We have been very fortunate to have good people,”
Browning, who arrived in town during the 1970s, said. “We have to work at it and figure out creative ways to have programs.”
A key component of the town’s success is a dependence upon volunteer groups who assist in community events and offer advice in assessing the community’s needs. “Community input is important,” Browning said. “You need outside advice to keep things going, for example, soccer and Little League programs,” he said. There is constant interaction between Town Officials and members of Jonesborough’s various advisory boards.
“The boards help with what can be done,” Browning added. “We make fewer mistakes with their help. If you are working daily, it’s hard to see how you are doing.”
The Recreation Department Advisory Board has the following members: Jack Van Zandt, Chairman; Jimmy Rhein, Marilyn Buchanan, Mark Merriman, Dr. Jason Davis, Casey Marler, Affiliate member, Little League; Hobart Powell, Affiliate Member; David Sell, Alderman; Katelyn Yarbrough, Mayor Designee; Conger, Parks and Recreation Director, and Matt Townsend, Wetlands Water Park Director.
Browning has an encyclopedic memory concerning the history of leisure activities in Jonesborough. In the 1970s Jane May started funding activities through the Jonesborough Community Chest. An early project, the restoration of the Christopher Taylor Cabin, was not a town project but it started an action movement that began to restore and revitalize what became the historic district.
“Little League baseball was going on,” he said. The local “Field of Dreams” was Duncan’s Meadow where there was no lighting on the fields. The Old Town Hall on Main Street was very small and had a little parking area.
When the decision to fund the building of a new town hall, now named for Browning, and a post office, the area of Duncan’s Meadow was selected. The construction of the two facilities would eliminate the ball fields.
Town officials began looking for land. Mayor Jimmy Neil Smith wanted to have a recreation staff. Browning was in charge of Community Development at the time. Kathy Frazer with money from the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) started the Recreation Program. Later, she became the Recreation Director in Kingsport.
With the help of Gerald Sparks and Steve Cradic, the town found 110 acres of land on which to build two ball fields. The rock in the area, now known as Persimmon Ridge Park, was blasted and resulted in room for a third field.
In 1979, Jonesborough submitted a grant application for a swimming pool on the property. It was turned down. However, in the 1990s, Mayor Kevin McKinney submitted the same general application and it was approved as the no. 1 project in the state.
“I had young children,” Browning said. “Our family went to a Disney theme park. They had water programs that were generating income. Nashville had a wave pool. When we did a recreation survey, the No. 1 request was for a pool. The only other pool in the area was in Johnson City.
“We felt our water park would have a good customer base,” the Town Administrator said. After some study, “An innovative design was draw up. We wanted enough income from our park to hopefully pay for itself.”
The result was a water park, at the time the only one in the state run by a municipality. “We did get a lot of respect for the project.” Browning said. “We felt the water park would promote tourism. This meant the town wanted to create better recreational facilities. We also knew that the project would benefit Washington County.”
Besides the ball fields at Persimmon Ridge Park, the Christopher Taylor Park was the only other park facility in town. The Town’s Board of Mayor & Aldermen wanted to create neighborhood parks. Mill Spring Park would become the first neighborhood facility.
Today, the Town has 10 parks: 1. Persimmon Ridge Park — 130 acres including baseball fields, the Lost State Scenic Walkway, a basketball court and an 18-hole disk golf course;
2. Wetlands Park – inside Persimmon Ridge – with the town’s swimming pool;
3. Golden Oak Park – the community’s newest park on north side of town between two neighborhoods with a playground for children ages 2 to 12 years;
4. Barkley Creek Park — The Lost State of Franklin Walkway runs from the park off the intersection of West Main Street and Persimmon Ridge Road around the fishing pond to the Washington County Courthouse on Main Street;
5. Depot Street Park – with bathrooms, volleyball and basketball facilities;
6. W. C. Rowe Park — the Chuckey Depot serves as a focal point for a linear park beside the creekway;
7. Mill Spring Park – near downtown that features a stream and a gazebo which is often used for weddings and other events throughout the year. The park also contains the Slemons House and restrooms;
8. Jimmy Neil Smith Park– located directly behind the International Storytelling Center it has a winding stone stairway from Main Street that leads up to the park with seasonal gardens and walking paths;
9. Stage Road Park – located about a mile from downtown, this park is over three acres of landscaped playgrounds, gardens and walking trails. The park features a playground for children ages 2 to 5 years. The site is popular for birthday parties and special events that can accommodate up to 50 people.
10. Veterans Park next to the Jonesborough Visitor’s Center with the names of those who have served their country.
Future plans call for a Community Park behind the Senior Center. The park has not yet been built or named. The site is located where the Town of Jonesborough’s current garage and maintenance facility is located. Grading work on parking for the park has already begun. The town has a $500,000 local park and recreation grant from the State of Tennessee to develop the three and a half acres. It requires a 50/50 match.
“We can match the grant with labor and equipment and also use the value of the land,” Director Conger said.
Jonesborough has been given two years to use the grant beginning in August, 2017. A concept plan designed with the assistance of a planning group from Virginia Tech has already been developed.
“We are definitely way ahead of the curve on park development,” Conger emphasized. She looks forward to the remodeling of the Jackson Theater and the opening of the Chuckey Deport. The depot opening is scheduled for June 28, immediately prior to the town’s Jonesborough Days celebration.
More trails, including one that could reach as far as Johnson City, sidewalks, walkways, a parks brochure and camping are included in a list of future projects.
“I’m really excited to see our arts program expand,” Conger said. “The McKinney Center is working on storytelling programs. We also need room for separate facilities for soccer in order to have the sport played in the spring summer and fall.” Functions at The Arboretum, currently staffed by volunteers, are being shifted to the Parks and Recreation Department.
In summary, Browning stated, “The Recreation Department has an unbelievable list of projects and programs still on the list.”
Conger said, “Jonesborough is great. It is incredible. Jonesborough is such a good steward of tax dollars.”
Those recreational dollars have given the community a quality of life that draws residents and tourists alike to the state’s oldest and many would say Tennessee’s Most Livable Small Town.