Washington Street Park improvements stalled while responsibility sorted out

emoody@beaufortgazette.comApril 7, 2012 

It was about a year ago that Henrietta Goode suggested the city of Beaufort add restrooms to the Washington Street Park so children wouldn't have to rely on the kindness of neighbors.

Today, the restrooms are no closer to being built than when Goode suggested them.

The project came to a halt last summer when residents from Youth Center Inc. claimed to have rights to the park and asked to be involved in any plans for changes. Until the city determines whether the group's claim is legitimate, improvements are on hold, said Goode, a member of the Northwest Quadrant Neighborhood Association and the city's Redevelopment Commission.

"Here it is, a year later, and we were well on our way to doing something that would have improved the community, and this has brought things to a stand-still," neighborhood association president Dwayne Smalley said. "I'm trying to understand how a handful of people gets to control what is a public resource -- and, I might add, a handful of unknown people."

The city has maintained and improved the park at 1011 Newcastle St. for decades, according to city manager Scott Dadson, and has worked with the neighborhood association on recent improvement plans.

The park was created in 1942 and is formally named the Beaufort County Negro Recreational Center for Negro Children. For years, it was the only park within the city where black children could play. From the 1950s through 1970s, it was home to community functions, church revivals and Decoration Day fairs.

The deeded owner is Beaufort County Negro Recreational Center, a defunct organization. Lady's Island attorney Louis Dore is part of Youth Center Inc. and says the group has a 99-year lease with the Negro Recreational Center or its successors.

"I guess if somebody had done their research, they would have found this out," he said.

Dadson withheld comment last week, pending a review of the lease.

Dore said he assumed the city knew about the lease.

"There's never been any questions that have arisen," Dore said. "This relationship has existed for a long time, and I imagine that if anybody would have wanted to change that relationship, there would be some discussions."

He said that since the city has maintained the park, the organization has not had to do anything with it. Problems have not previously come up. The lease includes a $5 annual payment, which Dore said was a "token" required by law and more of a gesture than an requirement.

The Northwest Quadrant Neighborhood Association recently sent a letter to the residents who brought up the concerns about legal rights to the park, asked for information about the organization, including its members, how residents can participate and documents about its role with the park.

Smalley cares less about who owns the park than what becomes of it. The letter also asked what organization members want to do with the park, what they think about the proposed changes and their relationship with the city, which has been maintaining and improving the park for decades using taxpayer money.

"Where were you through all the years of the park being there," Goode asked rhetorically. "You've never been out to do anything (with the park), you've never done anything for the children from 1958 to now."

Fred Washington Jr., a member of the Youth Center Inc. and chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Education, admits he and his organization hasn't been actively involved with the park for years.

"I guess I assume some responsibility, just because I've devoted most of my time to public education, but as a citizen I should not have lost sight of things I've been involved with in the past, in terms of that property," he said.

Washington's interest now is spurred by what he called an "emergency," in which the park's historical significance might not be preserved and appropriately recognized.

"It needs to be developed in a way that meets the community's need, not a politician's needs, but the community's," he said. "And I think there is a history and culture that identify with that park that needs to be recognized."

The neighborhood association is asking that those with an interest in the park meet and discuss these issues by April 30. No specific date has been set.

Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufort

Related content: Ownership questions surround Washington Street Park

Supporters ask city council's help to upgrade Beaufort's Washington Street park, March 15, 2011

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