In 2019, the county hired Adrian O’Neal as the Parks, Greenways, and Open Spaces Coordinator - a brand new position. In 2021, a year into his new role, the JCVB interviewed him for a blog which you can read here.
In the intervening two years since that blog was written, the Johnston County Parks & Open Spaces department has expanded to include not one, but two full-time staff members, has achieved many of the goals Adrian mentioned in our last sit down with him, and is expertly laying the foundation for the future of trails and recreation in JoCo.
We recently sat down with Adrian (now the Director of Parks, Greenways, and Open Space) and Austin Cross, the Parks & Open Spaces Grant Coordinator, to talk about program updates, how far the department has come since our last blog, and where they’re headed. To start with a big win, one of Adrian’s goals was to have an updated version of the County-wide Parks & Recreation Master Plan officially adopted by county commissioners, which they did in 2020. You can read the full plan here.
Austin Cross Joins the New County Department
I asked Austin how he found his way to his current position. He began as an intern with the Parks, Greenways, and Open Space department while he was at NC State University getting his undergraduate degree in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management. As an intern, he spent the Summer of 2020 helping Adrian with important first-step projects within the new department.
“Austin came in and brought a lot of thoughts and ideas, as well as a working knowledge of Johnston County,” said Adrian, “he stoked the fire of looking at the county as a whole and mapping out all parks, county-owned property, and available parcels. It was a great starting point for understanding what we have and where we can go. Sometimes it can be really great to have someone fresh come in and just start asking questions.”
Austin worked with the GIS department to compile the maps; he also worked with county IT to create a website for the Parks, Greenways, and Open Spaces Program. His vital work as an intern led to a part-time position while he completed his degree. He left briefly after he graduated for another full-time position as a Park Planner but was hired back in September of 2022 for a full-time position with Johnston County.
“My main job now is to assist the county and towns with tackling parks, trails, and open spaces projects. Mostly I help them apply for the grants necessary to fund the planning, design, and execution associated with recreational projects,” said Austin.
He also works with the program's partners. Back in 2021, one of Adrian’s goals was to use his role with the county to build partnerships with local and regional groups. Having a position at the county level that is in charge of open spaces, trails, greenways, and recreation provides a singular point of contact and a unifying voice for recreation and natural space in the county.
Adrian and Austin now work with the town parks and rec departments, community rec leagues, Triangle Land Conservancy, Artmosphere Community Arts Center, Howells Woods Environmental Learning Center, Bentonville Battlefield Historic Sites, Upper Coastal Plains Rural Planning Organization, Triangle Trails Initiative, Friends of Johnston County Parks, Johnston County Cooperative Extension, Johnston County Public Schools, Neuse Adventures, NC State Parks as well as groups like Friends of the Mountains to Sea Trail and the East Coast Greenway Alliance.
Planning Parks for the Future in Johnston County
“I think many people don’t understand the collective process involved in creating a robust recreation infrastructure because it’s changed over the years,” said Adrian. “Originally, when recreation was in its infancy, it was nothing for the community to get together and build a park. Now, with the technology and capabilities that have come about, not to mention the more litigious society we live in, things have changed. We want to have safe places for people to play. Ballparks can’t just be painted fields, they have to have the correct type of dirt and grass.”
Up-front planning is important. That’s what the department has been working on for the last three years, getting plans in place. The importance and benefit of planning and taking the time to place all the building blocks of a county-wide parks, trails, and open spaces program ensures that the program has longevity. Many recreation projects take years to see through; trails can take decades. Master plans, maps, and other foundational tools allow for the county’s recreation vision to continue into the future even as staff members come and go and officials change.
In 2021, at the time of the previous blog, the county had purchased an 80-acre tract of land in the Cleveland area with the help of multiple grants such as PARTF and LWCF. As of now, a master plan for the site has been completed and adopted. The Cleveland land is not the only park parcel the county has purchased over the last few years. They’ve also purchased a tract in the Thanksgiving community, a potential boat ramp tract adjacent to East Clayton Elementary, and a Wilson’s Mills parcel next to where the new high and middle school will be located. All these acquisitions were possible with the help of partnerships or through direct purchases.
Adrian’s other goals in 2021 included a comprehensive trails and greenways plan which he says is in the works thanks to the county’s land use plan project, “the county’s land use plan, which I think is getting closer to being adopted, has some very good aspects in it that are going to be preservation oriented and farmland oriented. So it is all coming together.”
The Open Spaces department has completed a feasibility study and a projected path for the completion of the Mountains to Sea Trail (also the East Coast Greenway) from Clayton to Smithfield. Austin also recently applied for and received grants to do a feasibility study that would complete the same trail from Smithfield to Benson and to do a comprehensive plan for all trails and greenways throughout the county.
“The comprehensive trail plan is more about trail transportation corridors throughout the county. Trails that would connect schools, parks, commerce hubs, and residential areas as best as possible. It will also take inventory of the trails already on the ground in JoCo and any trails in surrounding counties that we could connect to. Plus, it will put target lines on the map for any currently planned trails throughout the county. Lastly, it will provide developers trail construction specs if they want their community trails adopted by the county.”
What’s next for the Open Space Department?
So what is the future of the Johnston County Parks & Open Spaces Department? Adrian says most likely more staff members; as many as 5 in the next 5-10 years as the day-to-day work of executing the county’s vision for recreation grows.
“It was so important to bring Austin in on grants because funding is key. But we’d like to have an administrative assistant, someone to handle our schools-to-parks program, a facilities manager, and a park planner,” said Adrian.
“Something people need to understand when they look at a county like Wake and see their trails network and their parks and ask why Johnston County doesn’t have that, they’ve been land banking for decades to complete those initiatives,” said Austin. “Johnston County is just now starting to do that. These things take a lot of time and a lot of money. Recreation is no longer a cheap endeavor.”
But it is important, to both residents and visitors. Adrian added that Wake County has also been able to take advantage of three to four bond referendums over the past 15 years (2024 is JoCo’s next opportunity for a bond referendum). With the way the process works now, even the quickest park projects, with plans in place and money in hand, from the ground break to the ribbon cutting, can take 5 years. So, it can be difficult for people to see progress even when it is being made. Often prioritizing parks, trails, and open spaces is a multi-generational effort that our children and our grandchildren will see the benefit of as this county grows.
In the meantime, Adrian said, “We’re always looking for potential properties, especially in the eastern side of the county, that owners might be interested in selling or donating to preserve that land as a future park, trail, or nature space area.”
You can contact Adrian & Austin by email or phone here.
Lastly, just a reminder that it is still the Year of the Trail in North Carolina! You can find more information here.