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Residents speak out on planned Athens Street park
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Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe explains the latest proposal for a park on the south side of Gainesville during a meeting Monday, April 9, 2018, at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center. - photo by Joshua Silavent

The residents of the south side of Gainesville are taking the latest plans for a park in their neighborhood with a grain of salt.

Across Interstate 985, out along Athens Street, a few miles gone from the commercial centers of the downtown and midtown districts, is a largely residential, minority community of middle-class homes, public housing, trailers and immigrant enclaves.

“When it comes to African-Americans, or across the railroad tracks, we seem to get less and less,” Carol Leverette said to grumbled agreement at a meeting Monday at the Fair Street Neighborhood Center. “We just seem to get overlooked.”

But a new park is what these residents will have in one year if the latest proposal sticks to schedule.

“I completely understand,” Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe, whose district includes the south side, told the audience of several dozen.

The park will be located at the back of the lot at 1280 Athens St., where the county health department and old Butler gym sit, just south of I-985.

Residents were asked at Monday’s meeting to fill out a survey of proposed additions to the park, prioritizing what they wanted as the development will have to occur in phases due to budget constraints.

“We’re trying to prioritize with the money we have what you’d like to see first,” Stowe said.

Is it a basketball court? Or a pavilion? What about walking trails and open space, or even fitness areas? How about a water fountain for children to play in, a community garden or good old-fashioned playground?

Initial designs could come as early as this summer with construction to begin in November.

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.

Community groups, like Concerned Citizens of Gainesville-Hall County, have helped keep the push going. 

As recently as 2016, Hall County looked to purchase more than 21 acres behind the Harrison Square public housing complex for a large park encompassing a small community center. but that never materialized, either. 

Even now, there is simply is not enough money to get everything desired.

Residents like Eugene Whelchel said the community can’t wait any longer, even if it means getting the park piecemeal.

“You all got to find a way to take care of our side of town,” he said, later adding that, “I’m ready to take what we got.”

The county has $250,000 lined up in funds from special purpose local option sales tax revenue to spend. 

Officials said more money would likely come through applying for federal grants, and the annual budget process is an opportunity to explore additional expenditures.

Assistant County Administrator Marty Nix said the upside to the new location identified is that the county already owns some of the land, is seeking a donation of additional land from Fieldale, and development costs will run lower because the property is already laid for electricity and sewer.

“A lot of the infrastructure cost we don’t have to absorb,” Nix said.

But costs remain a determining factor in how residents will prioritize what goes in first at the park. And they want reassurances that the county will remain committed to building out the project sooner rather than later.

Belinda Hailey Dickey, a resident, said many people will agree that “something is better than nothing” but it remains “just a drop in the bucket.”

“We have got to demand more,” she said.

Park survey

To provide your opinion on what features the park should prioritize, fill out a county survey by visiting www.hallcounty.org/communitypark

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