Spencer Woods wins $200K grant

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 3, 2011

By Emily Ford
SPENCER — Leaders working to preserve a 43-acre hardwood forest in Spencer and turn it into a natural public park were shocked Monday to learn the project has won a $200,000 grant from the state.
“I am jubilant,” said a stunned Jason Walser, executive director for the LandTrust for Central North Carolina. “I am very, very excited.”
The state turned down a previous grant request from the LandTrust and the town of Spencer. But something changed, and late last week Gov. Bev Perdue announced the large award for the Stanback Educational Forest and Park, or what locals call “Spencer Woods.”
“This is absolutely wonderful news for Spencer,” Town Manager Larry Smith said. “Right now is a very difficult time, as everyone knows, for fundraising.”
Officials were still trying Monday afternoon to learn details of the grant: how Spencer was chosen, when the town will receive the money and stipulations for spending it.
Spencer and the LandTrust are working together to preserve the forest and create a passive recreation park in honor of Fred and Alice Stanback, long-time conservation advocates in Rowan County. Although grant writers dubbed it “Stanback Educational Forest and Park” because the application required a formal title, Spencer will determine the official name as a process of community engagement ramps up this winter, Walser said.
The state grant is part of a $1.4 million package from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to four local governments for parks and recreation projects. The awards, according to the governor’s office, “will help fund land acquisition, development and renovation of public park and recreation areas.”
Most likely, Walser said, the town will use the $200,000 to buy from the LandTrust the 43-acre tract running along South Rowan Avenue between 17th and 11th streets.
The LandTrust is purchasing it from Craft Development, a Charlotte-based real estate development company planned last year to clear-cut, grade and re-plant the land in loblolly pine trees. The LandTrust is paying $645,000 for the tract and will sell it to the town for $200,000, Walser said, which will allow the LandTrust to retire the debt.
The grant application sought that amount so the town would not have to use taxpayer dollars to buy the land, he said.
With the state money, focus can transition from fundraising to park development, Walser said.
The town will own the park but leaders want a committee to run it. They’d like to follow the model for Salisbury’s Hurley Park, which is owned by the city but has been a joint venture between public and private interests since its inception in 1984.
Walser said he would like to see a group similar to the Hurley Park Advisory Committee created to assist in the development, operation and maintenance of Spencer Woods.
“So it’s not all on the town to handle this,” Walser said.
With private fundraising under way and support from the Robertson, Woodson and Proctor foundations, the Spencer Woods project could start with an endowment of several thousand dollars, he said. Money has been committed for signs and benches, and several groups have volunteered to build trails and stream crossings.
Community meetings called design charrettes planned for January will allow residents to suggest amenities like lighting, parking and restrooms, Walser said. The LandTrust is open to any idea, as long as the park remains passive and the trees protected, he said.
“There could be elements we haven’t even thought of yet. There could be a tie-in somehow with the train museum,” he said.
Most importantly, Walser said, “we are dedicated to seeing this through to the end in a way that we think will honor the Stanback family and in a way that will be an amenity and asset to the town of Spencer.”
Spencer aldermen in April 2010 approved partnering with the LandTrust to acquire the land, but just barely. The board tied 3-3 and Mayor Jody Everhart broke the tie with a yes vote.
Alderman Jeff Morris voted no but said he’s not opposed to the project. He wanted more time to determine how much the project might cost taxpayers, he said.
Morris called the state grant “wonderful news” and said he supports the idea of a committee raising money for development and maintenance of the park.
“They’ve chosen a creative route,” he said. “Kudos to the LandTrust.”
Everhart said the issue probably will not have to come before the board again for a vote, “unless something surprises me.”
The partnership between the town and the LandTrust will set an example for other municipalities across the state.
“It’s a good partnership,” Everhart said. “We’re both trying to save the trees.”
Money for the state grant came from personal license plate fees and a portion of the excise tax on real estate deed transfers. Dunn, Lincoln County and Nashville also received grants for parks.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.