Volunteers at a popular Augusta park were stunned to learn that Augusta Parks and Recreation Director Maurice McDowell has placed Pendleton King Park on a list of possible closure sites that was disseminated to Augusta commissioners.
Unlike most other city parks, Pendleton King Park is privately owned, is governed by a board of trustees, staffed by volunteers and is jointly maintained by the city.
Beverly Dorn, a volunteer with the Augusta Azalea Garden Club, says she was shocked when she found out that the city was considering closing the park.
“Three generations of my family have used the park. My friends and I made it our sanctuary during the COVID 19 quarantine,” Dorn said.
According to Dorn, her garden club raised $10,000 in private donations to build a new sidewalk leading to the Azalea Garden and volunteers do most of the work to keep all of the separate gardens maintained year round.
“Last March, my garden club worked with the Boys With a Future program of Good Neighbor Ministries in Harrisburg and the youth group of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Summerville on a month-long project at the Azalea Walk,” Dorn said.
District 8 Commissioner Brandon Garrett says there is more to the story, that it costs the city of Augusta over $250,000 a year to maintain the 64-acre property of which is about 50% trails and wetlands.
“We haven’t had an agreement with the trustees since 2015; we put in all the money, and they pay nothing. We have a designated work crew and equipment that maintains the property. Since when should the city be maintaining private property without a written agreement?” Garrett said.
District 10 Commissioner John Clarke says that he agrees that a written agreement needs to be in place, but he says that he can’t fathom how the city spends that amount of money a year to maintain two comfort stations, tennis courts and cut an acre or so of grass.
“I agree that the trustees need to have an agreed upon partnership and that they should have some skin in the game, but I don’t believe it costs that much to cut the grass for six months out of the year. All I can say is that I have asked for a city wide audit, and this is one of the reasons,” Clarke said.
Rob Dennis, the current president of the Pendleton King Park Foundation, says his group has tried in good faith to work out an agreement with the city and even hired an attorney to come up with a contract that is amenable to both parties.
“We have submitted a contract that we thought the city was happy with, but then the attorney for Parks and Rec told us that we needed to assume all liability. We just can’t take out liability insurance for the city,” Dennis said.
The city of Augusta is already self-insured for any liabilities incurred on publicly owned or maintained land, according to former Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham.
According to Dennis, the city and the foundation have had an agreement with the city for 55 years with no problems and that the foundation does not charge the city for office space or the two storage sheds on site, all the city has to do is keep them maintained.
“I am so proud of our volunteers. Azalea Walk, Camellia Garden, the Blue Garden, the Hydrangea Garden and the Touch and Smell Garden are all meticulously maintained by master gardeners and volunteers and those gardens are a jewel right in the center of our city,” Dennis said.
Aside from the elaborate gardens, the park hosts the first 18-hole disc golf course built in the United States, two dog parks, two playgrounds and various gazebos which many couples use to take engagement photos, all at no charge to the public.
Garrett says that he just wants to bring the foundation trustees to the table and Clarke agrees, but says there is a deeper problem at the heart of the matter.
“That park is not closing, that is not in the cards, but gee, wouldn’t it be nice to have a city audit to figure out how it costs us $259,000 a year to maintain a park that is half forested and maintained primarily by volunteers?” Clarke said.