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Proposed park behind Harrison Square could boost area
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A plan for a 21-acre park near the back of the Harrison Square public housing complex in Gainesville is in the works. In addition to adding a park, city officials hope to revitalize the area. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Hall County is looking to purchase more than 21 acres behind the Harrison Square public housing complex on the south side of Gainesville to develop a park and community center for the largely minority residents who call the area home.

It is seen as a first step in a larger effort to bring economic development and commercial enterprise to the surrounding neighborhoods.

The project has been in the works for a dozen years, beginning in 2004 when plans were drawn up to develop affordable housing on the site adjacent to Harrison Drive, Athens Street and Interstate 985.

But that deal never came to fruition, and the property was later identified for a park.

“For 10 years, I don’t know why it never took off,” Hall Commissioner Jeff Stowe said. “Probably because of funds.”

But when county voters approved a new five-year round of special purpose local option sales taxes last year, money was allocated for new parks in Stowe’s District 4.

The commission plans to approve a resolution Thursday to de-annex the property from Gainesville. The city would then need to sign off.  

The Rev. Eugene Whelchel, who served on the county parks board for several years and has long worked to see something developed in the area, said the park would increase recreational opportunities for students and young people.

“When you take away recreation, we have more problems in this area,” he added.  “Good things will come from this park.”  

South Hall, East Hall and North Hall each have robust community centers, but lower-income and middle-class residents of these minority and immigrant neighborhoods have long felt left out.

The Concerned Citizens of Gainesville-Hall County, an active community group in the area, has been at the center of advocating for a park and community center in this part of the city.

Angela Middleton, Stowe’s challenger for the District 4 commission seat this November, said in a statement that she was pleased to hear that a move is being made to develop a park “in the Harrison Drive area that was promised when the old Butler gym was closed.”

“We have been waiting for several years … to hear about some progress on this project,” she added.  “District 4 deserves a quality community recreation area.”

The park property is currently bounded by a forest and a lake with an earthen dam.

Stowe said the lake would be drained, the dam removed and the creek restored when development proceeds.

“It’ll give us a nice flat, grassy area for people to throw the Frisbee, throw a football,” he added.  

Walking trails, outdoor basketball courts and playground equipment are likely additions.

And a community center like the one on Fair Street, as well as more meeting space for the Gainesville Housing Authority, is planned.

Stowe said the county would use about $500,000 in SPLOST revenue to purchase the property and remove the dam.

Grant funding will be needed to build out the park.

Stowe said the area has had little economic investment in the last few decades, but the new park will tie into the county’s ongoing update of its comprehensive plan.

And he hopes the park will be the beginning of a 10-year to 20-year project to revitalize this community, which could include rehabbing substandard homes and properties in the area.

“It needs a shot in the arm,” Stowe said. “We hope this park will be a catalyst.”