Camden County plans to spend up to $5 million on improving four Camden city parks, with the money going for new playing fields and more for the city's growing numbers of young athletes.
The money will go toward refurbishing Whitman Park, Reverend Evers Park in South Camden, Alberta Woods in East Camden, and a park planned for Fourth and Berkley Streets in Lanning Square.
County leaders hope to replicate the success seen in North Camden, where a recent $4 million revitalization project transformed the 15-acre Pyne Poynt Park from a haven for drug addicts and dealers into a family-friendly destination with a playground and baseball diamonds.
"The goal is to make these parks outstanding," said Camden County Freeholder Jeff Nash, liaison to the county parks department. "We want to make them as spectacular as anything you would see in Cherry Hill."
The county Board of Freeholders, which awarded contracts for the projects to an engineering firm at its meeting last month, plans to hold sessions with community members in the coming months to help determine what residents want.
"People are very pointed about what they'd like to see," Nash said. "And that's critical to the overall planning. When people have a voice, they use it."
The county, which is entering into a long-term lease agreement to manage the land, will seek reimbursement from the state's Green Acres program and work with the city and local nonprofit Cooper's Ferry Partnership, Nash said. The money earmarked by the county will come from the capital budget and open space fund.
For years, Camden residents have asked city leaders for help in improving the city's parks, saying that better fields help keep kids active and provide safe places for them to play. Though most of Camden's municipal budget comes from state funding, those who manage volunteer youth programs say that getting help from City Hall is a challenge.
Plans for Whitman Park might include expanding to include the site of the former Camden Labs building, a polluted area that has received federal funding for remediation. The site could be the home of new playing fields, Nash said.
Brad Hawkins, director of the youth football organization the Whitman Park Tigers, lobbied for years before the city made some improvements to his league's football field this year. He was cautiously optimistic about any improvements that are in the works for Whitman Park, but said he hoped he and others would be included in the plans.
He also worried that a revamped park could draw more teams from outside Camden. Currently, youth sports teams sometimes must compete with adult soccer leagues that use city fields.
"We are hoping that people would know that this field is for Whitman Park's kids and Camden's kids," Hawkins said. "When other teams come to play us, we'd like to be able to show off a beautiful facility that they don't mind coming to."
Rashaan Hornsby, president of the Centerville Simbas, another Camden youth football league, said he had been encouraged by the recent interest from local leaders in spending money on parks. But challenges remain, he said, such as the question of how to deal with the dirt bikes and ATVs that regularly disrupt games and tear up carefully manicured fields throughout the city.
"My solution is to create an ATV park," he said. "We need to stop making some of these young people public enemy number one. Because many of them are skilled and talented, and we need to think about how we can adopt a model of nurturing them."
Nash said that turning Camden's parks into points of pride is a crucial factor in the city's ongoing development.