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Hall County breaks ground at long-awaited Butler Park in Gainesville
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The Rev. Eugene Whelchel says a blessing over the ground Nov. 4, 2021, at the planned Butler Park south of Gainesville. With him are the Rev. Rose Johnson, left, the Rev. Michael Thurmond, center, and the Rev. Victor Lamar Johnson. - photo by Shannon Casas

E.E. Butler High School alumni rejoiced as Hall County officials broke ground on the long-delayed Butler Park, which will be constructed next to what used to be the historically Black school, now called The E.E. Butler Center.

Eugene Whelchel, class of 1967, shed a tear during the ceremony.

“We just thank the Lord,” Whelchel said. “I thank God that he let me live to see it done and done right.”

Officials from Hall County, Newtown Florist Club, Gainesville City Schools and more gathered at 1300 Athens St. where there will soon be a new park in a predominantly Black community that by all accounts has long needed this kind of resource. Officials hope to have the park completed by late summer.

“This is like a dream come true,” Ella Jean Smith said. “When I graduated in ’66, this was nothing but a wooded area.”

Smith said she’s excited to take her great-grandchildren to the park and for the surrounding community to have a park within walking distance. 

The 13-acre park will feature a pavilion, playground, splash pad, amphitheater, basketball courts and walking trails.

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Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe speaks to a crowd gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking for Butler Park south of Gainesville. Stowe has worked on the project for several years, which is now set to be complete summer 2022. - photo by Shannon Casas

More than $500,000 in federal grant funding needed to start construction was delayed for years after the county received approval in 2019. An ill-timed government shutdown, administration change and the COVID-19 pandemic were all to blame for delays, County Commissioner Jeff Stowe has said. 

But even before applying for the grant through the National Parks Service, Stowe had wanted to build a park in south Gainesville since he was elected in 2012.

Before acquiring land near the Butler Center for the park, the county had plans in 2016 for a 21-acre park at Harrison Square. And before then, the county had plans in 2004 to develop affordable housing on the site adjacent to Harrison Drive, Athens Street and Interstate 985. Appropriate funds to revitalize the area never came through until federal money was released in August. 

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The Newtown Florist Club livestreams the groundbreaking for the planned Butler Park south of Gainesville. - photo by Shannon Casas

In addition to the park, south Gainesville will see further improvements, because Gainesville City Schools recently agreed to use about $3 million of its federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to restore the Butler Gym, in partnership with Ninth District Opportunity, which owns The Butler Center. 

The center includes services such as the federally funded Head Start program that provides free preschool child care services to low-income families, with a particular focus on preparing children to enter kindergarten.

The school district and Ninth District must still work out details in a memorandum of understanding, Williams said, but the money will likely go toward renovating the gym to provide similar services as The Hub at Gainesville High School. 

“We’re not going to interfere with the daily functions of the Butler Center and Ninth District, but ours is more of a compliment to the needs and the services of our students and families in the evenings and weekends,” Williams said. The Hub is a resource center for workshops, community forums, job fairs and other gatherings, located at the high school.

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Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe prays with members of the community following a groundbreaking for the Butler Park south of Gainesville. - photo by Shannon Casas

The school district is partnering with Lanier Technical College to potentially set up Work-Based Learning opportunities and other nontraditional educational opportunities, Williams said. 

“It’s really about, ‘What is the need of our at-risk students, and how can we help them be successful?’” Williams said.

The gym had been in disrepair in recent years with a leaky roof, but Patsy Thomas, executive director of Ninth District, said they have recently repaired the roof and waterproofed the outside of the building with help from Fieldale Farms and Carroll Daniel Construction Co. 

Thomas said the gym may be used for Head Start programming and parent education opportunities.

“I hope everybody’s as excited as I am,” Thomas said. “We’re just at the dream-stage right now of what can be done, and what would fit into the needs of that community and the students and families of our Head Start kids and the elementary school children of the Gainesville City Schools.”