Thomasville City Manager Steve Sykes has a kind of genetic link to the city’s recreation program, particularly anything dealing with a ball and a glove.
His father, Steve, Sr., was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the mid-1960s, and young Steve grew up playing sports year round, finishing his athletic career in recreation softball leagues. “When I came to Thomasville in 1993, the first thing I did was find a softball field,” Sykes says.
But it wasn’t so much his play on the field as his pleas in the dugout that will fulfill his legacy in the Rose City. “In those days, the softball complex only had 30 acres and we were real limited in space to play,” he says. As assistant engineer for the city, Sykes helped write a municipal master plan that called for an additional 50 acres devoted to the full spectrum of recreational activities, including softball.
“I knew what kind of impact that was going to have,” Sykes says. Funding was to come from Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) revenues, with 21 percent of the tax money set aside for parks and recreation. “When that LOST issue came up, I went from dugout to dugout on game nights telling the players why they should vote for it.”
The LOST issue passed. The 21 percent for recreation is still on the books and the money is still rolling in, totaling some $14 million in the last 12 years. “That is a significant amount for one project,” Sykes says.
To get that landmark LOST issue passed, Thomasville had to put together another team, this one off the field. All seven of the county’s municipalities had to agree on a revenue sharing plan that benefited towns with populations as tiny as 350. Old turf wars and intra-county jealousies had to be set aside and were, sometimes grudgingly.
“This was not quite a marriage made in heaven, but certainly one made in a nice place,” says Thomasville Mayor David Lewis. “What this has done is get people to work together and get to know each other. We have demonstrated that we can work together, so we can take this to another level to apply the same thinking to whatever initiative is at hand.”
The multiple municipality alliance came together again in 1998 when it took the step of adding a ninth recreation partner to the existing fold of seven municipalities and one county: the local YMCA.
When both the city and Y tired of duplicating services, the local recreation board contracted with the nonprofit to run the parks and recreation department. “The Y is an agency geared around programming,” Sykes says. “It is an agency that is ready, willing and able to deliver the services. By turning the recreation programs over to the Y to administer, the taxpayers saved money.”
In fact the savings began almost immediately when the city faced the $400,000 cost of repairing its swimming pool. Solution: Close the old pool and open the Y pool to the public. The savings continued when the city constructed a new skate park and covered basketball park on land owned by the Y.
Thomasville (pop. 18,165) sits right at the Florida border, about a long home run shot from the state line. That proximity and a wealth of Victorian architecture have drawn a rising number of retirees, as well as new Hispanic residents attracted by farm jobs around the city. The changing demographics play on parks and recreation planning.
“Our citizens are changing,” Sykes says “And what worked 10 years ago may not work now. But the rec board has its hands on the pulse of the community.”
New retirees and an aging general population have led the city to look at adding more walking trails and shuffle board courts to its recreation offerings. The partnership also has acquired new playground equipment for two small towns in Thomas County, and made improvements at athletic fields in five rural municipalities. New soccer and softball fields have been built by the municipal partnership under the aegis of the local YMCA.
“In my 19 years on the city council, parks and recreation funding is the best investment we’ve ever made,” says Camille Payne, the city’s mayor pro tem. “And we don’t have to worry where the future funding is going to come from.”
Under state tax laws, the 21 percent in LOST revenues devoted to parks and recreation will continue forever, or until the voters reduce it in a special referendum. “It is going to keep on keeping on in perpetuity,” says Mayor David Lewis, who sees similarities in the multi-city partnership within the county and the softball players on the field. “There is in both an atmosphere of teamwork that will last long after the exhilaration of hitting a homerun or completing a project,” he says. “Those are benefits we can’t put a price on.”