Rotary Park getting new focus
HUNTINGTON -- It's often referred to as a slice of the country inside the city.
Rotary Park is the largest recreational area under the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District's control and is nearly double the size of Ritter Park, the district's crown jewel. Bookended by U.S. 60 and Huntington's Walnut Hills neighborhood, Rotary also offers a variety of amenities ranging from hiking trails to an observation tower to disc golf courses.
But Park Board Executive Director Kevin Brady contends that one of Rotary's greatest advantages -- its secluded wilderness that gives park visitors a respite from the distractions of urban living -- has also been a drawback. The 135-acre expanse is probably the least known in the district's stable of parks because it's out of sight and out of mind, he said. That also has made the park a rendezvous for men to engage in sexual activity.
"That's a reputation the park has had all the way back to the 1980s," Brady said. "I think the reputation is worse than the actual level of activity that goes on now. But regardless of whether it's more real or more perception, we can't ignore the fact that it's keeping people away from the park."
Over the next several months, Brady hopes to partner with law enforcement to eliminate the problem. The Park Board also is working on several improvements aimed at increasing usage of Rotary Park and making it more accessible.
"We need law enforcement to start the process, but bringing people back to Rotary Park is what will drive away this lewd conduct for good," Brady said. "I've always been a firm believer that the more good things you have at a park, the less bad things will occur."
The Park Board and Huntington Police Department have tried to eradicate sexual activity at Rotary Park for several years. It became such a problem in 1996 that Rotary's gates were kept closed during the day to prevent vehicles from accessing the park.
Law enforcement efforts intensified in 2010 when undercover officers with the Huntington Police Department made a series of arrests while walking along the park's trails. Male suspects were charged with crimes ranging from indecent exposure to pornographic live conduct.
Huntington Police Capt. Hank Dial said the park remains a location that it patrols on a regular basis.
"We realize we are part of the solution," Dial said. "The biggest thing we can do right now is have a presence at the park. At the same time, we haven't had any suspicious activity or incidents reported to us. If citizens see suspicious activity, they need to call and let us know."
Long-term change will occur through more park visitors. And to get more visitors, the park needs upgraded facilities, improved access and some new attractions, Brady said.
Upgrading facilities will start this spring with a new playground at a cost of about $60,000. The Rotary Club of Huntington, Huntington Foundation and Park Board are sharing the costs of the project. The existing wooden playground is more than 30 years old and is rotting, Brady said.
The city of Huntington has obtained a federal grant to restore 1.2 miles of paved trails at Rotary, and Brady has had discussions with state Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, about linking the park to the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health. Plymale is executive director of the Rahall Transportation Institute, one of the key agencies in the development of PATH.
The walking and bicycling trail system is expected to have 64 miles of existing or planned pathways and share-the-road routes connecting all of Huntington's parks and major employers from the West End to Altizer.
The first of three PATH sections that will be constructed this year is under way in Guyandotte and will end at the bridge spanning the Guyandotte River in front of Special Metals. Extending PATH to Rotary would give cyclists and pedestrians an easier way into the park, Brady said.
"We're looking at routes and the obstacles that are involved, but I'm confident that we can make the connection and that a large part of PATH will be inside Rotary Park," he said.
Building a third 18-hole disc golf course is also on Brady's radar. Johnny Sias, a two-time disc golf world champion, is designing the course and could bring it before the Park Board for approval at the end of this month or in March, Brady said. Brady said Rotary would become one of only four or five parks in the country where you could choose from three different disc golf courses.
"Our disc golfers have been the backbone of Rotary over the years and have done a lot to help the park make the transition from bad to good," Brady said.
Brady wants to replicate that enthusiasm with local cyclists by constructing a cyclo-cross course at Rotary.
According to USA Cycling, cyclo-cross is the fastest-growing discipline of cycling. Cyclists do laps, usually about two miles long, through mud, sand, grass and gravel and dismount and carry bikes over manmade or natural barriers. The cyclo-cross world championships were held in Louisville, Ky., last weekend and drew about 10,000 spectators to Eva Bandman Park.
Brady, who attended the event to learn more about the sport, said he's confident the course would be used and maintained by cyclists in the same fashion that disc golfers care for their courses and volunteer groups have painted the observation tower at Rotary.
"As far as cost and maintenance goes, it would be very minimal," he said. "It's still a work in progress. We need to see if we would be creating erosion problems and make sure it can coexist with disc golf."
Residents see potential
Huntington resident John Cummings said Rotary Park has served many purposes for him and his family. It's ideal for hiking, letting dogs off their leashes to run free and for photographers who love to take their craft into the wilderness, he said.
It's also the best-kept secret in town for sledding in the snow. The hills are longer than Ritter Park and there are never any lines, Cummings said.
"You're never going to see the same volume of usage at Rotary that you do at Ritter Park, because Rotary's out of the way and not everyone's a hiker or disc golfer," he said. "But I certainly think it could be on people's radar more."
In the four years that Cummings has used Rotary Park regularly, he said he has never seen any illegal activity. That makes him think the public's perception of the park is a greater problem than the problem itself.
"I would argue that the police could monitor five or six isolated areas at Ritter Park and make just as many arrests if they monitored some of the problem areas at Rotary Park," he said. "I'm sure increased law enforcement would help, but it's also about getting more people to come to the park and having common sense when you use it. You don't go up there at 11 o'clock at night and you don't sit in your parked car in a secluded area waiting for someone to approach you."
Peyton Elementary School uses the playground and picnic shelters at Rotary Park for its annual field day and rewards students who display good behavior with occasional trips to the playground.
"The playground is really in need of an update, so I was thrilled to hear that they are going to replace it," said Stephanie Cade, a first-grade teacher at the school. "Someone is always getting a splinter and during warm weather, we have to keep the kids off of the metal slides because they are too hot."
Cade said she enjoys the hiking trails at Rotary in her spare time but never goes alone because she's aware of the lewd conduct that has existed at the park.
"For that same reason, we won't take a school group to the top level of the park or on the trails," she said. "We've never had a problem at the playground area."
LOCATION: Main entrance is located off of U.S. 60 East near Special Metals in Huntington. Access to the playground and picnic shelters is located off of Maupin Road.
SIZE: 135 acres
AMENITIES: Two baseball fields, basketball court, playground, two picnic shelters, public restrooms, two 18-hole disc golf courses, four miles of paved and wooded trails, observation tower.
PARK HOURS: 8 a.m. to dark. The upper level of the park closes to vehicular traffic after dark.
HISTORY: The Rotary Club of Huntington took the lead among other local service organizations between World War I and 1925 in piecing together the park for the city of Huntington.
PARK TIDBITS: The disc golf courses were designed by Johnny Sias, a Lavalette resident and two-time world disc golf champion.
THE 175-foot-long stone, single-arch bridge at the park was built in 1929-30 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.