My Two Cents for the Park Tax

Yesterday afternoon we took an hour or so to walk in what we like to call “Spartanburg’s Central Park,” the Edwin Griffin Preserve (The Cottonwood Trail) on the Lawson’s Fork. It’s the closest public space to our house, and we get out to it as much as possible.

I like our house and surrounding private yard, but I’m a big, big fan of public places where people can go walk, play, and exercise without buying a ticket or paying dues. Spartanburg has perfected “the art of the private” with its clubs and comfortable homes and neighborhoods, but we are just getting started building an infrastructure to accommodate our neglected public selves.

Stroll down the trails in the Griffin Preserve on Spartanburg’s east side. Beds of zinnias are in bloom and the butterfly show is in high gear. The creek is low, but that makes for interesting new sand bars and mud flats emerging, and fish are congregating in the deeper bends. It’s easier to do a little fish watching during a drought.

It would take a dissertation to dissect what went wrong with Spartanburg when it comes to public space. Some say we are a poor county, always stretched to the limits, and we’ve done the best we could with marginal tax revenues. Others, the tax haters, say the ideal condition of citizens is tax free, and besides, elected officials have squandered the revenues they’ve collected anyway. The last thing we need is more taxes-whatever the reason. Several of our current county council members ran on such sentiments.

No matter what the reasons, Spartanburg’s public park system has been trapped in limbo for decades by lack of support and funding. It’s not that some of our elected officials and hired administrators didn’t see the needs, or do the best they could to manage the limited budgets.

And we haven’t lacked for good intentions. Over the past twenty years there have been visions, and plans, and even purchases of land for megaparks, but as a people we just haven’t believed enough in public space to pay for it. It’s just that making public space for recreation and reflection was simply not possible in Spartanburg County’s political climate.

When we walk on the Cottonwood Trail I realize that public land is not always bought and paid for only by public money. Our “Central Park” is a wonderful mix of public and private commitment, properties purchased and given as gifts by donors and government grants. In the funding void left by the tax haters, Spartanburg might be further along than other communities with this sort of solution.

In a time of limited commitment to public funded parkland, the Spartanburg Area Conservancy (SPACE) has contributed The Cottonwood Trail, Glendale Shoals Preserve, and the Chinquapin Preserve, hundreds of acres of open space dedicated to public hiking, mountain biking, running, and nature contemplation.

But it looks like we might have finally turned the corner in Spartanburg. A few weeks ago Spartanburg County Council passed a first reading of our own home-grown county hospitality tax for parks. The vote was unanimous. After two more readings it looks like we might take the first step toward creating a parks plan of action closing in on our recreational needs.

There are plans for large parks in the county, river access, ball fields. With the passing of the hospitality tax there will be more revenue for purchase, construction, and maintenance of our public spaces. We will still be behind many of the largest counties in the state, but the two cent tax is a healthy start to reverse a stunted sense of public space.

Our county administrators and County Council members are to be commended for realizing that adequate public space equals rich quality of life. Their confidence makes me want to work harder to get out of our house and spend even more time in a public park or preserve. Every visit is an investment in the shared life of our community.

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