Ch@t: Parks & Rec’s Burnett on county’s parks plan, need for more space

Posted 7/19/19

Tracy Burnett has been working for the Chatham County Parks and Recreation department for more than a quarter century.

A native of Chatham County, she attended Chatham Central High School, where …

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Ch@t: Parks & Rec’s Burnett on county’s parks plan, need for more space

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Tracy Burnett has been working for the Chatham County Parks and Recreation department for more than a quarter century.

A native of Chatham County, she attended Chatham Central High School, where she played tennis, softball and basketball — helping lead the 1986 basketball team to a state championship. After playing basketball at High Point University and graduating, she decided to return to the community to “try to make a positive impact,” and 27 years ago joined the department which she now leads.

This week, we spoke to Burnett about her role as the department’s director, the county’s master parks plan and the department’s youth programs.

Can you talk about your role as director and your approach to the responsibilities you’ve been given to lead the county’s parks and recreation efforts?

My role as the director is to plan, direct and evaluate comprehensive parks, blueways, greenways, natural resources, recreation programs and capital improvement projects, as well as to supervise staff, program implementation and operations, construct facilities and develop department policies, procedures and long-range plans for the Chatham County Board of Commissioners’ consideration. In addition, I search for funding sources and identify opportunities for alternative funding.

My approach to being the head of the county’s park and recreation efforts is a parallel to parenting. As with parenting, you want to see it grow and make sure everything done is in the best interest of your child or the county. You want it to expand and make sure it’s always safe. You want to raise it up and always do what’s best for it, always trying to find ways to make it even better. You must figure how to provide for it with the finances you have available. You have to also be patience with it. You have to know that the decisions you make or recommend in some cases will affect more than one person. You create, you nurture and you hope it brings a sense of pride and enjoyment to the community. In the end, you want it to be able to sustain itself and you want the program to exceed your expectations when it’s time to walk away.


The department’s mission is to “create a system of parks, facilities and programs that foster the health, wellness and quality of place for all Chatham county residents.” Health and wellness in a county poised for growth, like Chatham, are paramount. Does the county’s coming growth make accomplishing that mission easier or more difficult, and why?

It makes it more difficult because based on the national sports and fitness participatory trends some programs and facilities that we offer now are anticipated to increase in the number of participation by next year. And based on the National Recreation and Parks Association annual parks metrics report, at 566 acres of developed and undeveloped parkland owned by the Chatham County Recreation Department, we rank below the lower quartile of county’s agencies in the U.S and we currently provide median trail mileage among county agencies. Based on the study for health outcomes and factors, Chatham County has outperformed the state in many of those factors but there are also ample opportunities for improving the health of our residents. With us being behind now in parkland, trail mileage, and some health factors the coming growth will make it difficult.

You’ve been working on redeveloping two parks — Earl Thompson Park in Bynum and Southwest Park in Bear Creek. Can you talk about the status and plans for those parks?

To redevelop the parks, by providing updated park master plans is a recommendation from the Comprehensive Parks and Recreation Master Plan. The department’s plan was to take on the two oldest parks we built first which were also located on each end of the county. The park master plan is a different plan than that of the Comprehensive Plan. A park master plan is a plan specific to that park.

The plan recommends new amenities to generate new interest and uses in the park, garner excitement about the park’s future and much of the plan is dedicated to refreshing and refurbishing existing structures and amenities. In this way, the park master plan balances improving the experience of current park users who already use the park as part of their recreation routines, and attracting new users to be active and build community in a public space. Every element included in the park master plan results from the community engagement process by providing public input meetings and receiving comments and feedback.

The consultants have completed the two park master plans with park designs and cost estimates. It’s schedule to go before the board of commissioners in August.

That’s all a part of a Comprehensive Master Plan for the county’s Parks & Recreation Department, which was approved by commissioners back in February 2018. The final plan is a very detailed look at a 10-year vision for parklands and an implementation plan. Why is this plan so important, and can you give residents an update about what’s happened since it was adopted?

The plan is important to satisfy the desire for recreation needs and wants of the public, protect natural resources, preserve the rural character of the county and to plan for future growth. This plan guides improvements to parkland, programming, staffing and operations over a ten year planning horizon. Since the plan was approved and adopted in February 2018, we have been pretty aggressive implementing some of the recommendations in the plan:

• Hired an assistant Parks and Recreation Director

• Hired a full time park technician to better help with all the parks throughout the county and canoe access locations

• Completed two park master plans (Earl Thompson and Southwest Parks) and will begin work on the third one which is called the Southeast Park master plan for the Moncure area

• Provided funds for the improvements to 15-501 canoe access parking lot

• Continuing the obligations for the Park and Recreation Trust Fund at the Park at Briar Chapel by constructing a picnic shelter and playground and finalizing the route to construct a paved

• Continuing with the plans for the Pokeberry Creek Project

• Preparing the Standard Operation Plan for our first community center (scheduled to open in August 2020), built with the new school as a shared-use facility, and discussing the layout for indoor pickleball courts in the gym

• Discussing in detailed with the recreation consultants about the first trail corridor to find funds for to proceed with a trail corridor plan

• Creating a naming rights policy, updating the Parks Department Procedure manual

• Developing cost recovery goals for facilities and programs

• Expanding the Special Population Program by exploring more opportunities

• Applying and searching for grants and investigating other alternative funding opportunities

• Finally, we are pursuing establishing a Chatham County Parks Friends Group to help raise funds for the master plan recommendations. We are looking for interested people.

Youth sports are a big part of the service and programs your department offers and oversees and also assists other organizations in providing. How has that played out practically?

Youth programming is a huge part of what we offer. We are now offering nontraditional programming and more instructional clinics. We offered our first jump rope instructional clinic. The instructor, Zac Tomlinson, is from Chatham County and is a two-time World Record holder and 10-time World Champion. We have also provided youth volleyball clinics at various schools throughout the county. We also collaborate with community agencies and municipalities to develop and extend recreational programs by distributing funds to their agencies. Funds to municipalities are distributed based on per capita figure. We provided over $40,000 to assist the Town of Siler City with the swimming pool renovations, over $20,000 to assist the Town of Pittsboro with their park plan and a play structure at one of their parks and provided funds to the Town of Goldston to repair a ball field fence. Just to name a few of the organizations, funds were distributed to Bonlee Recreation Club to redo their grandstand and dugout roofs, Friends of the Lower Haw River State Natural area for canoe access improvements and Sprott Moncure Youth center to provide a basketball open gym program.


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