Park system celebrates 20 years of service in Gwinnett County

LAWRENCEVILLE - Sharon Plunkett knew Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation had made an impact when she topped a hill and saw thousands of people waiting to celebrate the opening of a new park.

"You couldn't see the park because of the people," Plunkett said of that day in 1991 at Collins Hill Park. "This truly made me feel we had brought to the public what they wanted and needed."

This July, the park system is celebrating its 20th year in service throughout Gwinnett, a short history in years, but one filled with accomplishments.

In that time, the number of athletic fields and pools has quadrupled, the amount of acreage has multiplied by six and the number of playgrounds has increased 11-fold.

But Plunkett, the director of parks and recreation operations, said she believes more needs to come.

In the 1980s, the Atlanta suburb was caught in a tremendous growth spurt, doubling in population in only 10 years.

While special districts were created for recreation from 1971 to 1987, residents only had six parks to enjoy - Best Friend and Jones Bridge parks in the Pinckneyville district, Shorty Howell Park in the Duluth district, Mountain Park Park in the Garners district, Dacula Park in the Dacula district and George Pierce Park in the Suwanee district.

Back then, parents stood in lines to sign up their kids for baseball and soccer teams, and some went home disappointed.

In 1985, the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners authorized a needs assessment to consider recreational needs as a whole, and in November 1986, resident voted to tax themselves for the service, setting up a countywide recreation millage rate.

Lois Allen, a member of the recreation authority, said she voted for the tax in 1986 and is amazed at the expansion she's witnessed in the past 20 years.

"I think people ought to be able to pay for things that they want or really need," Allen said about the vote. "When our children were growing up, there weren't as many park activities as there are now."

Helen Wilborn, who started working for the system before the 1987 expansion, said she remembers the excitement of those first years, when every park employee had to chip in at every event.

"It was small, but when we went countywide, we got really big, really fast," she said. "Everybody had to help. We wouldn't think twice about working a 60-hour week."

In the first several years, the focus was on adding ballfields, Plunkett said, and the parks began to open quickly.

On April 6, 1991, the county opened Lucky Shoals, Bethesda and Collins Hills parks.

"It just went on and on and we continued to buy and build," she said, pointing to an agreement with Lawrenceville to take over and expand Rhodes Jordan Park and the purchase of Tribble Mill Park as the first passive recreation park as some of the early achievements. "As the growth in the county continued, the needs were not just for the youth but for walking trails, aquatic centers."

Sales tax programs in 1996, 2000 and 2004 helped officials add even more acreage and facilities.

Allen listed a half-dozen parks that she regularly visits with her grandchildren: Bethesda Park, where her grandson plays baseball and soccer and she and her husband visit the senior center; McDaniel Farm Park and Ronald Reagan, where her family picnics, the historic courthouse land where three generations attend concerts and other events; Tribble Mill Park, where the clan enjoys walking or riding the trails; and the new Environmental and Heritage Center, where the youngsters can learn about water.

The county also has skateboarding for teens, bocce ball and water aerobics for seniors, special fields for the disabled, playgrounds for the young, bike trails and water sports for the adventurous, culture centers for the curious and even parks for the dogs and trails for the horses.

"The parks belong to everybody; we all are paying for them," Allen said, pointing out that the county is working on a new plan for the future and recently invited the public to give ideas.

"We have so much diversity of interest. There's just so many opportunities," the retired schoolteacher said. "It's a shame sometimes people aren't aware."

Plunkett said the ideas for the next generation of parks are still coming in.

"I'm not sure we've caught up yet" from the growth, Plunkett said, adding that there is still a deficit of soccer fields and officials are now focusing on preserving land for future growth.

At the same time, she said, people have been adamant about the older parks maintaining their luster. Because of that, in the past several years, all six of the original county parks have gotten an overhaul.

"There was such a rapid growth in the county in the early days. There was such a demand," said Eric Horne, the ground maintenance supervisor for the system. "We've been able to accommodate, for the most part, everybody that wants to play. ... It shows where we started and how far we've gone with the backing of the citizens and the politicians."

Gwinnett's program has been recognized nationally over the past two decades.

In 2004, the county was named Sportstown for the state by Sports Illustrated and the National Recreation and Park Association. The department also was a top finalist for NRPA's Gold Medal Award in 1999 and 2006 and was recognized by the Georgia Recreation and Park Association for the State Agency of the Year Award in 1988 and 1991 and the District 7 Agency of the Year in 1991, 1997, 2000 and 2004.