ETC Institute chart depicting unmet parks and rec needs in Albemarle Credit: Credit: ETC Institute

As Albemarle County’s population continues to grow, so too has a demand for the county to provide more parks and recreational services.

“The public very much values the parks and recreation system,” said Mike Svetz of PROS Consulting, a firm the county hired to conduct a needs assessment for the county.

“Parks and trails have opportunities to connect the community, both physically and then as part of bringing the community together,” he added.

Figures released last year by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia projected Albemarle’s population reaching 148,337 by 2045. The agency has estimated the county’s 2017 population as 107,697.

PROS Consulting also conducted a needs assessment for Charlottesville in 2006 when Svetz was the city’s parks and recreation director.

“This is the second of maybe four of five presentations that we will make,” Svetz said. “The idea is that we will fill you in as we have key opportunities and key information to share with you.”

As part of the work, the ETC Institute was hired to conduct a demographic assessment of the county. Surveys were mailed to random households and researchers followed up with phone calls. More than 500 residents participated.

“We had probably close to 15 to 20 focus groups in the fall and brought together upwards of 75 to 100 folks,” Svetz said.

Svetz said many people in the county’s growth areas do not feel there are enough services.

“The two things we heard most of related to the growth areas were athletic fields as well as indoor recreation space,” Svetz said. “The school parks which have served as neighborhood or community parks are in need of renovation.”

Svetz said capital funding for schools are mostly going to pay to upgrade the buildings and not to upgrade the playgrounds.

“Their mission, first and foremost, is about education and less about [physical education] classes and recess and serving as neighborhood parks,” Svetz said.

Supervisor Diantha McKeel, who served 16 years on the School Board, said she thought that body also should be briefed.

“I think we all need to be looking at how to best cooperate and work together on a lot of these facilities,” McKeel said.

Darden Towe Park is used the most by survey respondents, followed by Walnut Creek Park and athletic fields at schools.

“Two of your top three most-used amenities or assets within your system are athletic field-related,” Svetz said.

Svetz said the top recreational programs are adult fitness, natural experiences and youth sports.

“You are certainly going to become a population that increasingly gets older,” Svetz said. “Recreation needs for 55 to 64 are very different than 65 to 74 and 75-plus.”

Supervisor Liz Palmer, a veterinarian, said she there is one amenity she hears is missing in the county.

“I get a lot of people complaining that we don’t have enough dog parks here and saying they’re not evenly distributed,” Palmer said.

Svetz said dog parks ranked fifth on a list of desired new amenities.

For unmet needs, respondents listed trails, indoor fitness facilities, and “adventure areas.”

“That could take on all kinds of different shapes and sizes,” Svetz said. “It could be zip lines, it could be campgrounds, it could be archery ranges, it could be BMX tracks.”

Svetz said the next step is to take the information to map where the unmet needs are in the county.

“We don’t know what that ‘more’ looks like right now,” Svetz said. “I don’t mean to scare you in terms of how this translates into capital improvements.”

Their work will also include looking at the parks department’s personnel needs.

“Being a recovering parks and recreation director, I will tell you there’s nothing more important to implementing a needs assessment or a master plan than actually being able to do it,” Svetz said. “Some of that comes down to how well you are organized, how well you are operating and [if] you have the staff?”

Svetz will return to the board in April after the budget for fiscal year 2019 is adopted.

The needs assessment is being conducted at a time when the county has been gifted parkland that has not yet been programmed, such as 340 acres near the Ragged Mountain Natural Area that was donated by the late Jane Heyward.

In January, the county also entered into a lease to operate the state-owned Biscuit Run Park. There is no timeline for when the process to update a 2014 master plan for that 1,200-acre future park will begin.

County Executive Jeffrey Richardson will reveal his recommended budget for fiscal year 2019 at a special meeting on at noon Feb. 16 in Room 241 of the County Office Building on McIntire Road.

In the last budget, supervisors approved a request from the Senior Center to help fund their planned new facility in Belvedere. Part of the justification is that the new center will include recreational space.