Jackson County has changed a lot in the past two decades.
So has its recreation department. Just ask Rick Sanders.
This December, the Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department will celebrate its 20th anniversary, having expanded to six parks now and added amenities to meet the changing needs of the nation’s 22nd fastest-growing county.
“What folks expect now, it’s a challenge to keep up with those things,” said Sanders, who was JCPR’s director for its first four years and again for the last 10 years. “You’ve got a diverse county now.”
The department started in 1990 after the county government formed a 22-member committee to establish county-wide park service. Prior to that, each city or community ran its own organization.
Around the time of the rec department’s formation, Jackson County had only 30,000 or so residents. There are now over 63,500, according to recent census estimates.
“Now you have all kinds of demographics, all kinds of professions here, you’ve got really a mix of folks that have all different kinds of ideas and different frames of reference from what they came from,” Sanders said.
And JCPR — which built its first athletic facility, Lamar Murphy Park, in 1996 — has changed with the times.
The department has added four new parks in the last eight years, with East Jackson Park and Hoschton Park being the most recent additions.
East Jackson Park opened its gates last year, giving JCPR a presence in southeastern Jackson County. Hoschton Park was added this year and will provide a soccer-football complex with a baseball field and a walking trail for the far-western portion of the county.
“Each time we open a new park, we get really excited about it, because it’s something for our citizens to enjoy,” Sanders said.
While facilities are one thing, programs are another.
The department’s core programs are baseball, softball, basketball, football and soccer, but JCPR has to be perceptive to new sports on the horizon and the public’s changing needs.
Sanders uses a sport like lacrosse and its growth out of Atlanta as an example.
“We’re already getting calls from folks wanting to use Hoschton (Park) for lacrosse out of Mill Creek High School,” Sanders said.
And it’s not just kids wanting sports programs these days, either.
As healthy lifestyles continue to be promoted, the need for adult leagues has increased in Jackson County. In fact, the both JCRP adult softball league and basketball league have been big hits recently.
Meanwhile, demand for non-sports options has increased, with family gathering venues and nature-related parks becoming more popular.
“This decade, it’s really accelerated; it’s really hit our area,” Sanders said. “And it’s going to continue to be that way.”
To that end, JCPR opened Sells Mill Park back in 2002 and performed renovations of Hurricane Shoals Park (which originally opened in 1976) a few years ago. Both are considered “passive” parks.
“Hurricane Shoals is a jewel,” Sanders said. “It has been used so heavily over the last two or three years. Really, we’ve seen a big increase in that park, and Sells Mill Park, really being used more.”
As JCPR nears the 20-year mark, use of its facilities are up across the board — especially in a bad economy because of the inexpensive form of entertainment it provides.
Though funding has grown tighter since the economic downturn started, JCPR hasn’t turned away any kids or adults, nor has it had to cut programs so far during the recession.
And that’s the important thing to Sanders. To him, the major function of a parks and recreation program is to enhance the quality of life for a community.
That’s what he says he sees here.
“When I go out to a baseball, softball game or football game and see all the parents having a great time and enjoying their kids growing up, when I go here and see our adults playing softball and they’re having a great time, that’s what’s rewarding about it,” Sanders said. “It’s not about glory. It’s about watching those folks that you serve having a good time. And you want them all to have a good time.”