Here’s the great news for Hilton Head Island residents looking for increased and continued attention to parks and recreation options: You’re getting your wish, to the tune of a likely $4 million commitment to improving two popular island parks.
The tricky part? As staff and the development team behind those improvements have heard firsthand over the past couple weeks, there are a lot of stakeholders and a huge swath of opinions on what should be done to Crossings Park and Chaplin Community Park.
“This is going to be a difficult balance to work all these elements in,” said Ward 6 Town Council member Glenn Stanford at an Aug. 23 Town Council workshop discussing the project.
The projects calls for preparation of plans for “reimagining” Chaplin and redeveloping Crossings to make it the clear central hub for island baseball and softball activity for all ages.
“These are two of our most-used recreational parks. The work we are planning for them are major capital projects that will invigorate the town’s parks and recreation system,” said Mayor John McCann of the project.
Wood and Partners Inc., the firm behind the planning of the town’s recently opened Lowcountry Celebration Park, has been brought on to lead the planning in design consultation with Design Workshop and architectural input from the Watson Tate Savory firm.
Town staff and Wood and Partners have been gathering input through live polling and an online questionnaire which led to an Aug. 23 open house at the Chaplin Park pavilion off Castnet Drive and both a Town Council workshop on Aug. 23 and a Parks and Recreation Commission workshop on Aug. 24 to openly discuss plans for the project.
Wood and Partners presented the scope of the plan for the 22.2 acres of usable space at Crossings and 57.5 acres of upland usable space at Chaplin. Their next step is to marry what projects can actually fit into the land with the top usage priorities for the parks.
While the parks are not a complete blank slate, all parties are trying to maximize every inch of available space in the new plan.
Many groups vying for proper representation at the parks have given input, including the Hilton Head Island Baseball Association, Hilton Head Island Pickleball Club and the Eco Heritage Advisory Commission.
Community input for Crossings focused on adding two new 300-foot baseball fields; reinvigorating existing fields, the restroom and concessions building, and the plaza; expanding parking; and potentially developing new amenities, like an ADA-accessible playground; and improving pathways and irrigation at the park.
Both council and parks and recreation members were largely on board with the basic concept of making Crossings the premiere spot for baseball and softball. Their main questions had to do with just how far to go in attracting sports tourism to the park.
USCB officials have voiced interest in potentially using Crossings for baseball practices and games, and both council and commission members brought up the idea of attracting a wooden-bat summer ball league to play on the island, perhaps a local Coastal Plains League competitor for the Savannah Bananas. Extra seating would be needed to go that route.
Commission member Jack Daly emphasized that the 300-foot configuration would need to be expanded for more adult options. He also said that allocating extra funds to convert all fields at Crossings and Chaplin to turf fields would be a necessity to accommodate the level of foot traffic on both fields.
“Grass fields simply can not hold up to the wear and tear of this much activity,” Daly said.
Council members raised the possibility of a temporary football field setup to accommodate the need for practice space.
Wood and Partners said that other current amenities such as the soccer field or the meadow at Crossings would need to be redeveloped to allow for two additional baseball/softball fields.
Some members questioned the usage level of the current hockey rink, while both the council and commission agreed that the current state of the facility is subpar compared to the overall condition of the island’s parks.
Council member Tammy Becker spoke up for the hockey rink and the need for it, and advocated for resurfacing and upgrading the rink.
Chaplin park was a much more hot-button discussion, as the project calls for more of a reimagining of the park, with a plan for doubling the number of tennis courts from 6 to 12 and adding 24 pickleball courts to the park to provide a much-needed home for the fastest-growing sport both in the Lowcountry and nationwide.
Community priorities at Chaplin also include a pro shop at the courts facility, adding restrooms and concessions facilities, resurfacing existing fields to turf, and resurfacing the current basketball courts.
Council members Becker and Alex Brown were especially vocal in wanting to protect both the ecology and the impact to the residents living near Chaplin.
“What we do here makes a difference to day-in, day-out quality of life to the residents of this area,” Becker said.
Brown was passionate about plans not impeding with the honey-hole fishing that The Folly at Chaplin provides.
“It’s one of the better fishing spots on the island, when tides turn, you can be catching mullet there all day long, and I want to protect that beauty,” Brown said.
The biggest trick now is how to fit everyone’s wants and needs into both the renovated projects and new projects like the planned Chaplin Linear Park across the highway, the new Collier Beach and the planned mid-island park in Port Royal.
Both workshops discussed hopes for an over-road walking bridge to connect the Linear Park to the existing Chaplin park on both sides of U.S. 278. Both expressed the needs for dog parks and both groups questioned whether splash pads were the proper use at either park.
Multiple council members raised the possibility of adding a pool, as big as Olympic size, to the scope of the Chaplin plan.
Matching dreams with reality was the common theme with all input, perhaps voiced best by council member David Ames, who cautioned that the opportunity to think bigger with Chaplin should not be ignored.
“This is much more than a recreation plan, and it begs us to ask a more fundamental question,” Ames said. “We have a chance to create a new experience at this park, a unique island experience. Is that something like maybe a wave pool? We need to think about this in a different way.”
Town manager Marc Orlando will be at the heart of making all the wish lists mesh with special and financial realities, and he too has thoughts on how to proceed.
“We’ve heard the people loud and clear on needing to allocate funds to enhancing the recreation experiences here,” Orlando said. “The new comprehensive plan, the parks and recreation plan, they are quality documents. Where does everything go? … This is the first step toward meeting the increased needs here.”
Orlando made one thing clear: “I want to get it right, make sure every park project serves the needs of the community the best and to clearly serve the goals of Town Council and our residents. It’s a tall order, but I think we’re all excited to make this a reality.”
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.