East Spencer officials eye a return to glory days

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 31, 2012

By Karissa Minn
EAST SPENCER — Royal Giants Park didn’t look particularly royal or giant last week when Mayor Barbara Mallett, Mayor Pro Tem Curtis Cowan and Alderman Tammy Corpening walked through.
But the town’s leaders said they see potential for East Spencer’s former crowning glory, which first opened more than 30 years ago.
“I think in the next two years, we could bring the park back to what it was,” Mallett said. “In the next few months, we plan to open it for activities at the field.”
The mayor and several aldermen said they want to open the pool, which has been sitting dry and empty for years.
“If that’s not up and running, it will be some type of water activity,” Mallett said. “It might be a splash pad.”
The pool house seemed to be in good repair, but it had been tagged a few times with spray-painted graffiti. Asphalt on the parking lot beside it was cracked and crumbled.
The concession stand was boarded up, its paint was chipped, and bare wires hung from light fixtures in the ceiling. One of the restroom doors wouldn’t lock.
The basketball court’s four hoops needed repainting, and some needed new nets or other repairs. The asphalt was damaged there, too.
Still, there are already signs of renewal at Royal Giants Park.
By Monday of last week, the park’s grounds had been cleaned and its plants trimmed. The baseball field was freshly weeded and mowed.
Mallett said she hopes the field will soon host tee-ball, baseball, softball and basketball games. Some of the people who used to play for ball teams at the park are interested in holding a reunion, Cowan said.
In an effort to get the park ready for spring and summer, the town held a community work day Saturday.
Town officials worked alongside volunteers to paint, plant flowers, spread mulch, clean the concession building and do other various chores.
“We’re trying to bring camaraderie and that community spirit back, and why not at the park?” Corpening said. “That’s a good place to start.”
• • •
East Spencer has until January of 2013 to apply for a Parks and Recreation Trust Fund (PARTF) grant, which requires a dollar-for-dollar local match.
The town will send out a survey to residents in the coming weeks about their wants and needs for recreation in East Spencer. It will then go through the results, figure out the cost of each reasonable idea and prioritize them.
“It’s not going to be what the board members want,” Mallett said. “It’s what the citizens want to see at Royal Giants Park and what their vision is.”
The town then will put together a site plan for the park. It plans to hold a required public hearing this fall as it develops the grant application.
But some board members weren’t content to wait that long, so they looked at ways the town could improve the park without spending a lot of money.
“We know the grant is a good thing, but it’s not a sure thing,” Cowan said. “It will be 2013 before we could get this money, and we want to do something now.”
For Saturday’s community work day, Johnson said, Cline’s Landscapes donated mulch, Godley’s Garden Center and Nursery donated flowers and Chandler Concrete and Building Supply gave material to patch the basketball court. Bill’s Exterminating Company is helping with a fire ant infestation at a discounted price, and Ace Hardware in Rockwell is providing paint at a discount.
Money for the grant match can come from local organizations, churches, businesses, town fundraisers and even other grants.
“It’s going to take the whole community to help us, and we’re going to reach out to the community for help with the matching funds,” Mallett said.
Cowan and Corpening said they believe the community is willing to join together and help support the park — financially and otherwise.
“We can do this ourselves,” Corpening said. “There is so much talent in this town that hasn’t even been tapped.”
Cowan serves on the town’s special events committee.
“We just want to give the kids, when school lets out, somewhere to go,” Cowan said. “I want kids off the street and into the park.”
Corpening serves on the town’s parks and recreation committee.
“I’m happy that we’re all on the same page,” Corpening said. “For so long, the park was neglected. Now we’ve got a group of people together who are willing to invest in it.”
• • •
Royal Giants Park is named after the all-black Royal Giants baseball team, which began playing at the ballfield in 1947 and disbanded in 1953. The team’s trustees donated the land to East Spencer in 1978.
Reginald Massey, who was mayor at the time, said the trustees gave the town a condition on its ownership — it must maintain the property as a public park.
“We received a grant — I forget what the total amount was — to build the park, put in a swimming pool, build a baseball diamond and put all the things presently there now,” Massey said. “It was very popular.”
The park was dedicated in 1979. It continued to thrive until about 10 to 15 years ago, officials said, when it started to fall into disrepair and disuse.
The swimming pool — one of the largest in the area, Mallett said — was drained and closed due to high maintenance costs.
Fewer and fewer local residents came to spend time at the park, and community teams and groups stopped renting it out.
Alderman John Noble, who has served several terms on East Spencer’s board, said the town has “neglected it somewhat.”
“We just didn’t have the money to keep it going,” Noble said.
Mallett, who served a term as alderman from 2005-09, said recreation had to be placed on the town’s back burner, especially during the nationwide recession.
“Now, since the town is back on an even keel, we’re moving forward,” she said. “The town has taken great steps to get its finances and personnel in order.”
“I’m going to do everything I can to make it a number-one park again,” Noble said. “It needs some work — there’s no doubt about it — but it can be a beautiful thing if we can secure the money to rejuvenate it.”
Noble said he used to go play in basketball tournaments that were held at the park. He said he hopes to get that program, as well as a softball tournament, started up again for the community.
“We had people coming in from miles around — from everywhere — to come to the park,” he said. “On Saturdays and Sundays, it was standing room only out there.”
Massey says he’d love to see the park restored to what it used to be and more.
“I’ve always wanted to see it thriving,” Massey said. “I just hope and pray that the board becomes successful.”
Alderman Rosa Burris said she wants to see more community gatherings and family reunions held at the park.
“I would like to see it fixed up properly for our young people to have place to go play,” Burris said. After talking to her grandson, she added, “He’s a teenager, so he’s going like, ‘Grandma, you need to get the field fixed and fix the court.’ ”
She also said it’s a “blessing” to see town residents working together to revitalize Royal Giants Park.
“I’m hoping we can get more ideas of what the community wants,” Burris said. “We’re all excited about it. We’re believing that East Spencer is on its way back up.”
Alderman Phronice Johnson said that in the time she’s been on the board, which is more than a decade, she has never seen the members come together like this to fix up Royal Giants Park.
“Right now, I am very thankful for the brotherhood and sisterhood among the board members and the mayor,” she said.
Alderman Theodore Gladden could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday, but he has previously said he wants to improve the park.
“What I’m hoping for is that we are able to restore the park so that the citizens can once again go down there, feel safe and know that the park belongs to the citizens of East Spencer,” Johnson said. “That’s what my dream is for the park. It’s long overdue, but, hey — we finally are getting there.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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