Locust works to implement city’s first parks and recreation master plan

With Locust well-positioned for continued growth in the near future due to its close proximity to Charlotte, city leaders have been working on how best to accommodate the influx of new arrivals, especially when it comes to the services the city provides.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Emily Jones and City Administrator Cesar Correa have been planning for how the department can meet the needs of its citizens in the years to come. To help with this, the city is looking to implement a parks and recreation master plan, which would identify the current state of the department facilities and, through public engagement outreach efforts, determine future needs.

“In general, most municipalities, especially anyone larger than us, have a master plan completed at least every 10 years,” Jones said, adding that Stanly is one of only a few counties in the state without its own parks and recreation department.

In the past, a steering committee comprised of residents from each of the municipalities created a comprehensive recreation plan for the county, though that has since expired, Jones said.

“With the growth that we’ve had, we felt it was necessary that we assess our own community needs and how we move forward in Locust,” said Jones.

The city increased its population by about 55 percent over the past decade, from 2,930 to 4,537, new census data show, far outpacing the gains made by every other Stanly County municipality.

“Our community is growing and we have seen a big increase in participation in a number of different programs and youth sports,” Correa said.

Once the council approved the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget, which included funding to complete a master plan, Jones worked with Correa to put together a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for a firm to help Locust prepare such a plan.

“The city seeks a consultant that will provide expertise and a strong leadership role in advising both staff and the City Council on how to best plan for recreation in our community,” according to the RFQ document.

With no firms submitting a response following the mid-August deadline, the city again issued an RFQ in September, Jones said, noting this time she shared it with the North Carolina League of Municipalities and the North Carolina Recreation and Parks Association.

Following the Oct. 31 deadline, Locust received proposals from Benesch, a professional services firm based in Charlotte, WithersRavenel, a civil and environmental engineering firm based in Cary, and Centralina Regional Council.

About a week after the deadline, Jones, Correa, Councilwoman Mandy Watson, Planning Director Scott Efird and Public Works Director Tim Flieger reviewed the RFQs. They plan to make a recommendation at the Dec. 8 council meeting.

Assuming Council approves the recommendation, the work to implement the plan should begin in January. Jones said she hopes for the plan to be completed and presented before Council for approval sometime next summer.

“I’m beyond excited to finally begin this,” said Jones, who will be celebrating her 10-year anniversary with the city next month. “So for me, this feels like a very big milestone in my career and for Locust that we finally get to do this.”

With the city having recently hired a full-time athletic coordinator, Jones said she will have more time to devote towards working with the firm.

The plan — which will help guide the city’s actions over the next decade, including which projects to prioritize — will focus on parks and programs, but may also include greenways and bicycle and pedestrian routes depending upon citizen input, which should take place early next year, according to the RFQ document.

“This plan will give us a good idea of the direction we need to be moving forward,” Correa said, noting it will also give the city an opportunity to apply for North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF) grants. “It will be a roadmap for how we need to fund different projects, different improvements, different activities.”

As part of helping Locust develop its plan, the firm that is selected will assist the city with community engagement efforts (including creating surveys and organizing focus groups and public forums), assessing the city’s current facilities and comparing them to what is offered in similar-size municipalities and looking into what type of services and programs could be offered in the coming years, as Locust continues to increase its population, Jones said.

For the plan to be impactful and transformative, the buy-in from the public is critical, Correa said.

“In order for this project to be successful, we’re going to need folks to come out and voice their opinions, voice their needs, let us know how they want us to move forward in terms of what activities and programs we should be looking at, what type of improvements we should be looking at,” he said.