Residents remain optimistic amid continued delays to begin construction of Butler Park on the city’s southside between the public health department on Athens Street and Interstate 985.
“We believe in seasons and the timing of God,” said Michelle Mintz, a minister at St. John Baptist Church who helps lead the Concerned Citizens of Gainesville-Hall County, a longtime community action group that met Tuesday, April 9, for an update on the park.
Hall County government has applied for about $536,000 in federal grant funding to match $250,000 in special purpose local option sales tax revenue that officials have identified to build a playground, pavilion, basketball court, walking trails, exercise stations, a water-play feature, picnic area, parking and restrooms.
In its grant application, Hall County outlines a $1.35 million project on 13 acres, including 5 acres donated by Fieldale Farms at an appraised value of $445,000.
Hall officials also got a boost from Brian Rochester & Associates of Gainesville, which designed the park free of charge.
Hall County’s grant application was just one of two selected by state officials last summer for federal consideration, and confidence is high that it will be awarded.
But the partial federal government shutdown late last year and early this year delayed grant awards across the board.
Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe, who represents the city’s southside, an enclave of low- and middle-income minority neighborhoods, said an answer was originally expected in March.
That would have meant, assuming the county received grant approval, that construction would start this summer and the park could be open by the fall.
Now, however, the earliest date for an opening, absent more delays or weather-related interruptions, is likely in early 2020.
So, it’s “wait and see,” Stowe told the Concerned Citizens group, which has worked for years to get a park built in this area without public green space.
“We been crying in this area for something to call ours,” Eugene Whelchel said at the Concerned Citizens meeting. “We want the money.”
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 plan did not pan out.
The park now proposed begins at the back end of the health department’s parking lot, which has been caving in due to drainage problems.
The county has worked to clear trees and begin leveling some of the land where the park is proposed to solve the drainage problems, placing sewer pipes and other materials to divert water along its natural course down a slope to a hollow with a pond.
The “unexpected benefit” of drainage problems, Stowe said, is welcome because it just happens to set the stage for the park’s construction, if and when it happens.
For example, the county is moving dirt to the property to adjust the topography for proper drainage that will also help in the development of a ballfield at the park.
For the uninitiated, the availability of dirt is a big deal for a project like Butler Park.
Fortunately, Stowe said, the county has a good relationship with the Northeast Georgia Medical Center. And over the last several weeks, truckloads of dirt have been transferred from a construction site on Jesse Jewell Parkway where the hospital system is expanding to the park site on Athens Street. Additional dirt needed for the park’s future construction may also be available if the county can get federal approval to remove sections of Tadmore Park from a conservation covenant.
The county intends to build a new fire station at Tadmore in East Hall, and the dirt generated from that project could be useful for Butler Park.
But approval for this change to the conservation use of the land also comes from the federal government, and has also been delayed as Washington, D.C., plays catch up from the shutdown.
The parking lot itself will later be expanded by 50-60 spaces, according to Stowe, to both accommodate growing needs for the health department as well as anticipated use of Butler Park.
Some questions remain, however.
For example, residents have inquired about safety plans at the park, such as nighttime lighting, law enforcement patrols and whether gates will be installed to limit loitering when the park is closed.
Stowe said he would be having discussions with his fellow commissioners, local law enforcement and representatives from the city of Gainesville to best address these concerns.