A public survey on the future of Waco’s parks drew a big response, along with big expectations.

Most of the 3,088 people who participated in the city’s online and paper survey rated the existing parks and recreation system as good or excellent, but most agreed it could be better.

The survey is part of the process to create a new parks and open space master plan, which will go to the Waco City Council in March and will guide the development of future parks and recreation amenities.

Many respondents want more trails and more parkland, while others want to improve existing parks with shaded play structures, inclusive playgrounds, dog parks and water recreation.

“People really want to see existing parks improved,” senior park planner Tom Balk told the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board last week. “Some said before we go buying more land, we need to invest in what we already have. Everyone agreed we have a great park system, but we need to invest what we do have.”

The survey also showed public support for strengthening programs, especially adult fitness, public concerts, nature programs, swimming and summer camps.

Parks officials said they will work on prioritizing projects and finding possible ways to fund them beyond existing general funds and grants. Some new resources could include a tax-deductible park foundation, a hotel-motel occupancy tax or a dedicated property tax, as well as user fees.

This isn’t the last chance for public input on the plan. The parks department will post a draft of the document for public review Jan. 23 and will hold public review feedback meetings in the first half of February before the council considers it for adoption in March.

Parks director John Williams said he is impressed with the response level to the survey, which was mostly conducted online.

“For a city this size, to get 3,000 is significant,” Williams said. “We were expecting maybe 1,500.”

Popular proposals

Some groups also have been organizing to advocate for specific projects, including an inclusive playground where able-bodied and disabled children can play together.

Another project with a strong following is Trail Blazer Park off Harris Creek Road.

The 19-acre park was created in conjunction with the $4.5 million Cotton Belt Trail, which opened in 2013 off Harris Creek. But so far, it consists of nothing but a parking lot, a walking path and a field with a shade structure that has been compared to a bus stop.

A new group called the West Highway 84 Neighborhood Association formed recently with the first order of business being to advocate for improvements at Trail Blazer Park.

Neighborhood association president Nathan Embry said he and other members have been active in the public input process and will meet as a group with parks officials Feb. 2.

He said he’d like to see a full playground at Trail Blazer Park, perhaps with a train theme to reflect the history of the Cotton Belt Trail as a former rail line.

Embry, who lives with his family in the SunWest subdivision next to Trail Blazer Park, said the growing area deserves a real park.

“This is a younger neighborhood with a lot of kids out there, and you see a lot of them playing in the street or riding a bike in the street. . . . There are a lot of parents with kids who I think would enjoy the park,” Embry said.

He estimated that a new playground would cost between $150,000 and $300,000.

“We’ve talked to parks officials, and I think they’re open and receptive,” he said. “Like everything else, the question is funding. We have to do our part to get that done.”

About 125 people are involved in the neighborhood association, which represents SunWest, Harris Creek, Meadowland Estates and other subdivisions along the Highway 84 corridor.

Park board members and staff last week discussed the need for more parks in suburban growth areas, including the Highway 84 corridor and China Spring.

“I think people would recognize that there’s not even distribution of parks,” Balk said.

The city’s parks advisory board also talked about extending the hike-and-bike trail system, which now runs for several miles along the Brazos River.

Board member Diane Deaver suggested branching out from the river into old railroad rights-of-way.

“I love the idea of connectivity on the rail system,” Deaver said. “We see it all over in different cities.”

Park planner Dustin Felix said the idea of using Waco Creek as a corridor for a trail system dates back to the city’s first comprehensive plan in 1958.

“We’re not suggesting anything new — it’s been around for 60 years,” he said. “We just have to figure out how to do it.”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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