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HISTORY

History of PARA
 

40 YearThe City Recreation Department, as it was formerly known, became the Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority on November 1, 1970. The Authority, representative of the three local governing bodies—the City of Tuscaloosa, the City of Northport and Tuscaloosa County—was governed by an appointed Board of Directors.  Included on this Board were Dr. Morris “Munny” Sokol, Chairman, Dr. Eric Rodgers, Mrs. Paul Singleton, Mr. Ernest Williams, Mr. Claud Morrison, Dr. Henry Savrey, Mr. Tierce Deal and Dr. William Clipson.  Mr. Jerry Belk was hired as Director in 1966, replacing Ms. Minnie Sellers, and he served in that capacity until his retirement on December 31, 1996.  At that point in time, Mr. Don Kelly replaced Belk as Director. 

The Authority was empowered to take over the functions of theTuscaloosa and Northport Recreation Boards.  The County did not have a program at that time.  The Authority was to control the existing recreational facilities, with local governing bodies retaining titles.  The implementing act was passed at the 1969 session of the Alabama State Legislature by the local delegation.

This action was the culmination of much work on the part of the Community Council, the planning and coordinating arm of the United Fund. The Council conducted a study and findings were translated into local support through meetings and discussions of the citizenship, then into legislation and then to the local governing bodies for approval of support and funding.

The budget in 1970 was $245,745 and staff consisted of seventeen full-time employees.  The park land inventory consisted of 24 parks, playgrounds and school sites.  Emphasis was placed on special programs for the elderly and expansion of recreation programs in the schools.  Over 500,000 persons were served in 1970, working relationships with the City and County School Boardswere established, a supervised gym center and playground program was started, the services of a nationally acclaimed recreation planner were employed, development of facilities at Lake Tuscaloosa took place and an extensive public awareness campaign was implemented.   In 1973, a multi-million dollar bond issue was proposed for capital development, but at that time the bond was defeated.

1979 was a landmark year—total park acreage climbed to 1,146 acres, with the acquisition of 325 acres at Sokol Park.   The athletic complex at  SokolPark was completed; the women and youth athletic complex at Bowers Parkwas begun; the first phase of the Snow Hinton Park plan was completed; and sixteen tennis courts were constructed at  Bowers Park. Attendance was 20 times greater than in 1970, and services were expanded to include therapeutic recreation and a pre-school program.

In 1983, opportunities for participation in athletic activities grew to include fall and summer softball, baseball, tennis, golf, swimming, football and volleyball.  Recreational Travel experienced its greatest growth with over 40 trips by over 2,550 participants.  Also in 1983, the PARA staff hosted the Alabama Recreation and Parks Society State Conference.

Progress in 1984 was aided by tremendous growth in invitational softball tournaments and the addition of youth soccer to athletic programs was put in place.  Other events that occurred in 1984 were the coordination of over forty community-wide special events, the completion of the Northport Community Center renovation project, the creation of BAMA Fanfare (a professional performing series for school children); and the development of the Summer Sounds Concert Series.  Grants were also accepted for the purchase of two handicap accessible vans and two 35-passenger buses.

A reorganization of staff and program divisions occurred in 1985, along with a significant increase in picnicking and park usage, the introduction of a Teen Team Board, and the moving of PARA’s Administrative Office to the old City Hall building in downtown Tuscaloosa.

The year 1986 provided over one million people services by a staff of forty full-time employees through recreation programs, arts and park usage. The $1.2 million dollar budget was 51% government appropriation and 49% fees and charges generated by PARA.  Two new areas, Special Services and Program Evaluation /Quality Control were implemented.  Holt Park was completed and space for a PARA Office at the Northport Civic Center Complex was opened.

Also in 1986, the Tuscaloosa County Parks and Recreation Authority’s Board of Directors began the District Development Program as a means of establishing communications with all segments of the County, and to help various communities and community-based organizations in developing and/or improving the arts, park and recreational opportunities.  The beginning seed money was $1,500 for each of the four county districts.  This money was to be matched with community funds.  Program Advisory committees were established to assist with fulfilling the mission statement, and they were and still are comprised of both lay and political representatives with an abiding interest in community affairs in their respective districts.  Each Advisory Committee performs the following functions: (1) Assist in the development of projects and programs as they relate to the needs of the Public served in the District.  (2) Assist in the establishment of short- and long-term planning goals and policies within the District. (3) Recommend plans of action for satisfying the needs of each District.  (4) Serve as a liaison between the Public and PARA. (5) Encourage individuals, businesses, citizen groups and organizations in the District to develop the arts, public parks and recreation through leadership and commitment of time and resources. As can be seen from the above list of functions, the Committees are critical to the operation of PARA.  They provide the strong ties to the communities and its citizens that help formulate and steer PARA’s strategic plan for developing and operating the arts, park and recreational facilities within Tuscaloosa County.
 
In 1992-93 PARA started working with little league baseball programs in two districts to help develop their facilities.  A total of $8,000 was employed at that time for project work.  From 1993 to 1995, nearly $40,000 was spent in seven communities to help fund walking trails, and athletic field lighting and fencing. In the 1995-96 Fiscal Year, the program was modified to a 50% matching grant to effectively double the amount of work that could be accomplished.  The communities could match the grant money with cash and/or in-kind work. This was also the time in which the Tuscaloosa County Commission began to appropriate substantial funds to the program.   The Commission contributed $150,000 per year from 1995 through fiscal year 1999-00.

In 2000-01 the Commission raised the level of funding to $200,000, which meant that each District received $50,000 for project work in the County. At of the end of 2001-02, PARA and the County Commission had contributed over $972,000 for park and recreational improvements, which has been matched by nearly $1.2 million in community work. To date, about $2.1 million in projects have been completed for improvements such as community centers, athletic complexes, multipurpose trails, and playgrounds.  Both PARA and the CountyCommission have been extremely pleased with the success of the program and the sense of ownership and pride exhibited by communities and County citizens in their participation with project work.

The year 1995 was a landmark year, as the planning began for three community centers to be built in the City of Tuscaloosa.  The Tuscaloosa City Council voted to build these two centers and one additional center to be located within the city limits.

In August of 1997 the Belk Activity Center opened in Bowers Park.  It is the largest of the 3 centers and houses two full size gymnasiums as well as a suspended 1/10-mile-walking track.  A cardiovascular exercise area is also situated near the walking track.  Additionally, the center has several multi-purpose rooms, a conference/meeting room, a catering kitchen, an aerobics room and a game room.  The center was dedicated on October 4, 1997 in honor of Mr. Jerry Belk, Sr., former director of PARA.

In November of 1997, PARA assumed operational responsibility for the McDonald Hughes Community Center.  The original portion of this Community Center was erected in 1978 and was named in honor of a local civic leader, McDonald Hughes.  The original building housed a 5,000 square foot gymnasium, a game room, a commercial kitchen, restrooms, a day care room, and a computer room and office space.  In late spring 1998, the expansion of a large multi-purpose banquet hall was completed.  Renovations also included a gracious lobby area with an attractive pre-event area with opens into the large 9,780-foot banquet hall.  The addition also houses a catering kitchen convenient to the banquet hall, a conference room, and additional office space.   This center is charged with the responsibility of running a large summer lunch program, which has been very successful.  Along with the previously mentioned rooms, the center also houses an exercise room. Open House and the dedication of the new addition were held on June 13, 1999.

In February 1998 the Mary Ann Phelps Activity Center opened.  The center is located north of the river in Rock Quarry Park and is situated along the banks of Lake Tuscaloosa.  One of its many amenities is a large scenic patio area that overlooks the lake and the spillway, lending itself readily to picnics.  The center also holds a gymnasium and small-suspended ¼- mile walking track, multi-purpose rooms, a meeting room, an aerobics room, a game room and a large community room with an adjoining catering kitchen.  This center was officially dedicated on June 18, 1998 in honor of Mrs. Mary Ann Phelps, a member of the Board of Directors of PARA from 1975-2002, who graciously gave of her time, wisdom and energy in serving the citizens of Tuscaloosa County.

In April 1998 the Leroy McAbee, Sr. Activity Center opened.  This center is located adjacent to the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in East Tuscaloosa.  It was dedicated on July 4, 1998 in honor of Mr. McAbee, a member of the Board of Directors of PARA since 1981.  The facility has a full size multipurpose gymnasium, an exercise room with equipment, a game room, an aerobics room, two meeting rooms, a large community room with adjoining kitchen and outdoor patio and a heated therapeutic indoor pool.  The pool is used primarily for aquatic exercise and rehabilitation as well as for swimming lessons and lap swim.  The pool was dedicated on August 15, 1998 and was named the Dr. James R. Dockery Indoor Therapeutic/Fitness Pool.

In the fall of 1998, the Arts Division of PARA began a capital fund drive with the end result being renovations for the Bama Theatre, which adjoins the PARA offices in downtown Tuscaloosa.  The $100,000 fund drive was successful, and the theatre lobby was greatly expanded, new carpet was installed throughout the facility and movie projection equipment was reinstalled in the original projection room of the theatre.  The Silver Screen Movie Series officially began in June of 1999, bringing to the community classic movies as well as independent and art films.  Further renovations took place in the summer of 2002, with a new Star’s Dressing Room, and cosmetic upgrades in the Greensboro Room and the outer lobby of the Theatre.  Summer of 2002 also brought the sad news of the death of Gail Skidmore, Executive Director of the Arts Council for 20 years.  Her contributions to the arts in Tuscaloosa and to the Council will be missed.

The Arts Division of PARA continues to sponsor the Bama Fanfare educational series and the supplemental SPECTRA program, both of which serve over 60,000 school children annually.   The Council has also partnered with OTC Publishing to create a semi-annual arts magazine, “Jubilation,” which has seen five issues in the last two years.  The magazine is distributed to all hotel/motel rooms in the area, as well as to the Arts Council membership, businesses and restaurants in the community, and to the University ofAlabama.  The Silver Screen Movie Series featured the First Annual Jewish Film Festival in February 2003.

The Robert Hasson Community Center in Northport opened under the supervision of PARA on May 6, 2000.  The large multipurpose center with adjoining kitchen, which was remodeled in the fall of 2002, is available for rental by the public for wedding receptions, meetings, family reunions, etc. Classes that have been offered at the center are sewing, quilting, and gymnastics.  Past activities include after school tutorials and a youth sports program for ages 6-12 years.  New playground equipment was installed in 2002, and senior luncheons are a staple part of the Hasson Center operations.

Entering into the new millennium, PARA completed the first phase of two highly requested public golf courses.  Opening on December 10, 2000, the Ol’ Colony Golf Complex is located adjacent to Sokol Park on 597 acres of land leased from the Alabama Department of Mental Health.  The 18-hole, 300-acre golf course was officially dedicated on May 21, 2001 with a celebratory tournament.   Since it opened in December of 2000, Ol’ Colony had already seen 41,000 rounds of golf.  The remaining acreage will eventually be developed into the second 18-hole course in the near future.

PARA, in partnership with the Tuscaloosa City Schools, began providing the recreation aspect of the 21st Century Learning Grant awarded to the City Schools in 2001-02.  The three-year grant was awarded by the United States Department of Education to provide academic and cultural enhancement and other skills for at-risk youth in the City of Tuscaloosa.  The program consists of an after school program during the school year, and a six-week summer program.  During the summer of 2002, in addition to the daily activities provided at the collaborating schools, PARA provided field trips, tennis camps and golf through the 1st Tee Program.

The new millennium and the years 2001-02 brought a variety of on-going park development activities, reflecting the growing needs of our community:

Jaycee Park – A Master Plan of the park that was prepared in 2001 proposed improvements compatible with the annual West Alabama Fair and other events operated by the Jaycees.  PARA has assumed management and control of the Park, which will still be utilized by the Jaycees for the Fair each fall.  PARA is presently working to upgrade facilities in this 19-acre community park.  These improvements will include an approximate ½-mile multi-use trail, water fountains, park benches, a picnic shelter, and additional playground equipment.  The City of Tuscaloosa has approved $70,000 for many of these amenities, and work is expected to begin in the near future.

Lake Tuscaloosa Park – Plans for development and operation have been prepared for an 18-acre site on the east side of Lake Tuscaloosa.  Features proposed for the property include picnic shelters, park benches, an access trail, parking lot, and convenience stations.  Some work for this project has already begun and includes general clearing for the access trails and the shelter areas.

Newt Hinton Park – In 2000, PARA acquired a 40-acre site located in the Taylorville-Hillcrest area adjacent to the Taylorville Primary school.  With the help of community citizens and organizations, the County Commission, and the County School Board, a Master Plan of the site has been prepared that will accommodate the school and community.  The plan proposes athletic facilities, a community center-activity building, multi-use trails, nature area, stream observation, open space, playground areas, picnic shelters, etc. The access road and parking facilities have been constructed and work has started on all facilities in the open areas of the Park.  Money for construction is coming from a $200,000 grant package and a $450,000 special appropriation from the County Commission.

Monnish Park – Major renovation was undertaken in the year 2000 in one of the City of Tuscaloosa’s oldest park facilities.  A multi-use trail approximately 1/3-mile in length has been constructed, and lighting has been installed along the trail and in the adjacent parking area.  New picnic tables, park benches and litter containers have been placed, and new signage erected. Some horticultural has been implemented to improve the health of trees, increase visibility, and promote grass establishment.   The Ronald McDonald Charities House contributed two new modular playground units that have been a wonderful addition and attraction in the park.

Palmore Park – Similar to Monnish Park, The City of Tuscaloosa provided funding for a new ½-mile multi-use trail.  Park amenities, lighting, and playground equipment have been added to this 150-acre park.  These new elements complement the significant open space, picnicking areas, and large outdoor swimming pool available to the public.

Jack Warner Sports Complex – Major renovations were recently completed within this four-field complex with the help of the City of Tuscaloosa.  New fencing, sod, infields, and irrigation have been installed at the facility that will serve the young baseball players participating in the YMCA program.

A. L. Freeman Park – A major renovation effort is ongoing for this park and swimming pool facility.  The old pool building has been removed and a new building has been completed.  The building will serve a renovated pool, the park, and athletic activities at nearby schools and Benjamin Barnes YMCA.  The Park Proper will be completed redone in the summer of 2003, and funding will be sought for a cover over the recently renovated swimming pool.  Funding for this work has come from Community development block, UPARR, and special appropriations from Senator Charles Steele and the City of Tuscaloosa. 

Riverfront Development – Major planning efforts are underway to develop the frontage along the Black Warrior River for a variety of interests and activities.  To date, major park renovation work has been completed at the old River Road East and West parks, which coincided with improvements made to the nearby University of Alabama park.   A Master Plan was prepared for the Queen City Park and work has started on the natural areas of the park through the Friends of Queen City Park.  The short segment of the proposed pedestrian walkway has been completed.  The walkway will provide the portal for eastern access into this exciting new facility.

Northport Parks Development—In the spring of 2003, the City of Northport appropriated over $400,000 for development of new parks on the campuses of Flatwoods Elementary and Faucett-Vestavia Elementary Schools. This money will also be used for renovation work in the existing park at the Northport Community Center. Features to be incorporated in the parks on the school campuses include walking trails, picnic shelters, playground equipment and other park amenities.

Over the years, PARA has continued to have excellent planning, development and leadership through its dedicated and distinguished board members. The PARA Board of Directors for the 2002-03 year consists of President Sam Faucett, Peggy Carpenter, Peggy Hogue, Leroy McAbee, Sr., Rev. Schmitt Moore, Roland Pugh, Roger Taylor and Jimmy Warren.  Each of these individuals are distinguished members of the community and bring to the board their own expertise in construction, public relations, finance, and other attributes that make the board efficient.  Mary Ann Phelps, long-time board member for PARA, retired her position in September 2002.  Her numerous contributions to PARA and the community will be missed by many.  In addition to having the Community Center at Rock Quarry named in her honor, Mrs. Phelps served as one of the Grand Marshals at the annual Christmas Parade in December of 2002.

Over the past three decades, PARA has made major strides in serving the needs of Tuscaloosa County.  Time and demands are continually changing, and PARA administration is always ready to adapt and grow in an effort to serve the continued needs of the citizens of the County.

To be continued...

 

 
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