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Calls for Athens Street park comes from all corners
With donated land, services, and possible grants, hopes for facility grow
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New progress is being made to develop park, improve roads and sidewalks, and redevelop some dilapidated housing in Morningside Heights after being pushed off for years. Now restarting the project begins with developing land the county owns behind the Hall County Health Department and the Butler Center property off Athens Street. - photo by Scott Rogers

The local business community and politicians are stepping up to support the development of a park along Athens Street on Gainesville’s southside where many low-income and middle-class minorities reside.

With any luck and a few prayers, Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe, who represents the area, said the park could be constructed and opened to the public by October 2019.

It’s been a dream of residents along the Athens Street corridor to have a park of their own, but for years every plan has been derailed for one reason or another.

Now, Hall County is applying for about $536,000 in federal grant funding to get a park – replete with a playground, pavilion, basketball court, walking trails, exercise stations, spray pool, picnic area, parking, restrooms, lighting, signs and utilities – constructed behind the county health department building and old Butler gym at 1280 Athens St.

In its application for the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership program administered through the U.S. Department of Interior and National Park Service, Hall County outlines a $1.35 million project that has drawn the backing of the community it intends to serve.

“Those who walk along Athens Street will now have the option of walking in a beautiful park,” resident Matthew Little Sr. said in comments included in the application.

“This park will truly be an asset because our neighborhood suffers from lack of park greenspace and we’re surrounded by nothing but industry,” said resident Barbara Mason.

Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed park adds value to the neighborhood and will “connect people to outdoor places in an area that is underserved.”

“Many in the area do not have the resources to travel to other areas of Hall County for recreation,” she added.

The nearest county park is the Allen Creek Soccer Complex, about 2.3 miles away by foot, which lacks facilities such as picnic space and playgrounds for children.

The nearest city park is Desota Park in the historic Newtown neighborhood, about 1.6 miles away. But busy streets with no sidewalks or crosswalks make this newly renovated park difficult to access for those living in Harrison Square public housing complex or Morningside Heights single-family home neighborhood, for example.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, authored a letter for the application packet in which he states that the park will foster broader community engagement and help revitalize surrounding neighborhoods.

“I am confident that such a (park) would be an invaluable asset to the community,” he added.

Richard Higgins, chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, said in his letter of support that federal funding is needed to “develop a park for a densely populated and underserved area.”

“The park is vital to connecting this community to outdoor recreation, and with the county’s added services of low-income housing assistance and neighborhood cleanups, it will assist in engaging and creating a better quality of life for these citizens,” he added.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners approved the application in mid-July.

The 13-acre property includes five acres donated by Fieldale Farms at an appraised value of $445,000.

M. Garland Reynolds Jr. of Reynolds Architects in Gainesville said in a letter of support that it would provide its services to design the pavilion and restrooms for the park (an estimated $15,000 cost) for free.

“I am asking that you give favorable consideration to this park,” Reynolds said. “It is something that will give hope, add value and encourage our younger generation to get outdoors.”

The county is planning to use special purpose local option sales tax revenue to cover its share of the proposed cost, confident that the grant will come through when funding is announced in March. 

Until then, the wait is on.

“This has been a promise I made when I ran for office in 2012, and it has been a long road, but we finally have light at the end of the tunnel,” Stowe said. 

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