Our Turn: Vote ‘yes’ for park and rec

In Richmond County’s Vision 2020 plan, county officials referenced the 2004 planning efforts, during which officials cited the need for increased collaboration between the cities of Rockingham and Hamlet. Between 2004 and 2013 when Vision 2020 was created, “municipal and county government officials have worked side by side to improve the quality of life throughout the county.”

vote_yesBut collaboration requires conversation, and in taking a major step forward in implementing a part of that plan — as the proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase is for the county’s plan to increase tourism by way of an expansive sports and recreation complex — more conversation was needed.

Whether it was the competition between towns or simply a lack of organization, the fact that government officials across the county did not engage in much needed conversations hindered the progress on several important projects. That’s straight from the plan, and refers to the period prior to 2004. It’s also very relevant since July 7.

On July 7, the county commissioners voted to put the proposed sales and use tax increase — to 7 cents per $1 spent, up from 6.75 cents — on the Nov. 4 ballot. Let the voters decide, they said. But there was no follow-up by county officials at that meeting, nor at the August or September meetings. No town hall-style gatherings to provide information. No visits to Hamlet, Ellerbe, Hoffman, Cordova or Norman to drum up support or offer details. Nothing.

Between then and Monday — less than a month before election day — rumors have flown. Assumptions have been made. Lines have been drawn. And long before the polls open, votes have been decided. And only now does more information come out.

This is the question voters will be asked on Election Day. The Pee Dee Post strongly encourages voters to check "yes."

This is the question voters will be asked on Election Day. The Pee Dee Post strongly encourages voters to check “yes.”

It’s unfortunate that a very good idea could be voted down because of a very bad rollout. The fact that the Richmond County Board of Realtors, the Richmond County Chamber of Commerce and the Rockingham Downtown Corporation, among others, have endorsed the project can’t go unnoticed or understated. These organizations are full of intelligent, business-minded leaders who can see the big picture.

Each of those organizations have member that live, work and play here in Richmond County. It’s where we choose to call home. It’s where we’re raising our children, if we have them. Yes, we have Parsons Field in Ellerbe, Hamlet Memorial Park, Browder and Bynum parks in Rockingham and more but as Parsons noted Monday night, what parent doesn’t want better for the next generation?

It’s apparent there is no written guarantee the commissioners use the increase in sales tax revenue, should voters approve the referendum with a simple majority vote, for the project. All of it or any of it; there’s no written promise. For the sake of conversation, let’s assume our elected officials aren’t trying to pull a fast one and they truly intend to fund a large portion of the sports complex.

Our major concern is this: the Vision 2020 plan includes this (page 28): If the complex cannot be built or if the proposal has to be lessened in terms of facilities and activities, then there might be an intervening opportunity to build interpretative nature trails or other outside activities for kids in the immediate vicinity of Discovery Place KIDS, and if it is not going to be built, then some of the funds that might have been held back for the facility can be invested in other ways to support the tourism for kids theme. 

We think county residents and voters deserve to know what their vote is going towards. Is it for a sports complex? Then make it clear. Is it also for something else? Then make it clear. What should have taken place is, long before July and certainly since then, the commissioners should have requested of municipalities and other stakeholders, including Richmond Community College and Richmond County Schools, a list of upcoming, or even “pie in the sky” projects that could aid economic development, and forward those lists to the commissioners. Then the commissioners could have prioritized the list of countywide projects based on a point system of a number of criteria.

election2014logoBut the lack of any of this is a good enough reason to vote “no” on the referendum, because the sports complex is a project that can and should stand on its own.

We elect our public officials to make decisions that we don’t have to. Ultimately, the buck stops with them. It’s now up to them to make clear what the money will be used for — in as clear a manner as possible — and then allow voters to decide. While the complex has long been planned for and discussed, this is the first and most recent opportunity to engage the members of the public — the very ones who will vote yes or no in November. It’s not too late to engage the community.

As for the very real rivalry between different cities in Richmond County — for at least one issue, for the betterment of the county, let’s put the boxing gloves down. It makes sense for the city of Rockingham to own and operate the complex because it’s within Rockingham’s city limits. While about $889,000 has been spent on the land, conducting a variety of required environmental studies and preparing the site for utilities, less than 20 percent of that has been with taxpayer money. The city of Rockingham has been a wise steward of the public’s money, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. The city of Rockingham is in the best financial position to fund the part of the project the quarter-center sales tax revenue doesn’t cover.

There is more to the county’s tourism plan than a new sports complex; the latter is simply a piece of the puzzle to help move not only Rockingham but all of Richmond County forward. We’ve still got motocross and lawn mower racing in Ellerbe; barrel racing and lawn mower racing in Marston; museums in Ellerbe and Hamlet; Hitchcock Creek Greenway and Blue Trail, and easy access to the Pee Dee River; trail riding in the game lands; horse riding in Hoffman; destination endurance footraces in Ellerbe, Derby and at Hinson Lake in Rockingham; and with the opening of the Ellerbe Springs Inn and campground, perhaps a Tour de Richmond by bicycle is in the cards.

This complex could be a destination not only for the traveling ball teams from across the Carolinas but for the moms and dads of Richmond County who want a night out on the town old-time style — a carousel ride for the younger child while two older children play tennis with their friends. The complex won’t bring money in by itself, but surrounding businesses will benefit by having more customers and businesses (read: Hampton Inn) could decide to relocate here based in part on this quality of life issue. And the more customers they have, the value of the quarter-cent sales tax revenue will increase — making the funding of well-planned projects (like this one) across the county much more likely.

Just as important: leaders of the Leon Levine Foundation, the Cole Foundation and the Foundation for Richmond County all want to see how local leaders make the most of current investments. To vote this down could impede not only the sports complex but many other future projects.

If it seems idyllic, it’s because it is. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It could be a reality if our elected and appointed officials throughout the county can work together in the next four weeks to help clarify misinformation and misconceptions. We’re hoping for the best because it’s one of the best ways to move the county forward.

This is an editorial by The Pee Dee Post. The newspaper’s position does not necessarily reflect the personal opinions of individuals who work with, or contribute to, PeeDeePost.com.

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