County parks vie for major U.S. award

LAWRENCEVILLE - In 2001, the Gwinnett County park system consisted of 3,700 acres of land. Only five years later, the system has more than doubled in size, with more than 8,300 acres split into 31 parks.

And for all their improvements, Gwinnett County parks are being honored as one of the top four park systems in the country.

"We're so elated," said Sharon Plunkett, division director of operations. "We're really on cloud nine."

Now park department administrators have their fingers crossed in hopes the county will bring home its first gold medal. The final winner will be announced live in front of 6,500 people at the National Recreation and Park Association's annual conference in Seattle on Oct. 11.

Gwinnett was a finalist in 1999 but has never won the gold.

The national recognition from the NRPA and the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration comes as Gwinnett works toward a major long-term expansion of its park system.

More than $400 million from three separate Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax programs has supported the park system's explosive growth. Eighteen more park openings or expansions are planned, with four set to be completed this month.

Phil Hoskins, director of the Department of Community Services, said county residents are to thank for park system improvements because they agreed to the extra sales taxes in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Grant Guess, division director of project administration, said community involvement is one of the central reasons the park system has been so successful. He said there have been many efforts to ensure new parks meet the needs of the community, including conducting telephone surveys, town hall meetings and focus groups.

Hoskins said the park system tries to fulfill as many needs as possible. It works with 23 youth athletic associations, he said. And at Ronald Reagan Park in Lawrenceville, there's something for everyone, including a dog park, horseshoe pits, boccie ball courts and a small skate park.

Tammy Wimer of Suwanee spent part of Monday sitting in the shade at Collins Hill Park in Lawrenceville catching up on some work on her laptop. Nearby her two sons practiced their batting on one of the baseball fields. Wimer said she voted for the 2005 SPLOST, adding that her family uses the park for everything from Little League practices to birthday parties.

"I think it's worth the money," she said. "(The parks) are definitely put to good use."

In the Kansas City area, where Wimer used to live, the parks were too large and unwieldy, she said.

"This is nice because it gives you a small-town community feel," Wimer said.

Gwinnett parks were united under a countywide office in a 1986 referendum. Around that time, the park system consisted of less than 2,000 acres.

NRPA Awards Coordinator Marianne O'Riley said 23 other park departments submitted applications in the same category as Gwinnett, which is for parks that serve a population of 250,000 and over.

The other three parks in the running for the gold medal are the city of Long Beach Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine in California, the Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation and the Fort Worth Parks and Community Service in Texas.

"They have phenomenal programs," Plunkett said. "We're really going up against the best of them."

Last year, the gold medal in the 250,000-plus category went to St. Paul (Minn.) Parks and Recreation. In 2004, Austin (Texas) Parks and Recreation captured the prize.

Park departments submit a paper application to a panel of judges. Once a department is chosen as a finalist, it sends in a 12-minute video for a second round of judging. Plunkett said the county plans to air the video on TV Gwinnett to educate the community on the park system.

The finalists are chosen based on a wide array of attributes, including "excellence in long-range planning, resource management, volunteerism, environmental stewardship, program development, professional development and agency recognition."

O'Riley said the gold medal is the most prestigious award that can be won by a park system in the U.S. And the prize?

"There is a huge plaque," she said with a laugh. "It's very heavy and it almost takes two people to carry."