2024 All-America City – Watkinsville, GA

The City of Watkinsville is seeking to rebuild civic bonds by investing in strategies that connect residents to one another and to the city. These efforts are exemplified in the city’s new tagline, adopted in 2021: “Come. Connect. Create.”

‘Come’ implies that Watkinsville, a town of 3,385 residents, is a welcoming place for visitors or those relocating their homes or businesses. ‘Connect’ speaks to a commitment to community engagement and intentionality in creating infrastructure that allows citizens to gather in non-digital ways. The tagline ends with ‘Create,’ offering an opportunity for people to imagine what they can create in Watkinsville, whether it’s a family, art, or a new business. Ultimately, people are invited to “Come. Connect. Create.” in Watkinsville. 

Miracle League/Playground of Possibilities  

Despite a longstanding partnership with Extra Special People (ESP), Watkinsville lacked outdoor recreational facilities where children of all abilities could play together in a safe, inclusive, and accessible environment. In response, ESP proposed a Miracle League Ball Field and a fully ADA-accessible “Playground of Possibilities.” To realize this vision, a committee of community stakeholders was appointed in 2019 to discuss project scope, identify priorities, and review design plans. 

Input from the public was gathered through six public sessions and a park survey sent to over 1,000 residents, resulting in 321 responses. With the city contributing $440,000 and ESP pledging $1.5 to $2 million, the project commenced. ESP’s Big Hearts – A Ball for All, involving local businesses and citizens, raised substantial funds, complemented by a $150,000 contribution from the Oconee County government. 

Community involvement was central, with public workdays allowing hands-on participation. The Miracle League Ball Field and Playground of Possibilities, offering inclusive recreational opportunities, opened in June 2022 at Harris Shoals Park, previously home to a limited-access “braille trail,” a rundown ball field, and an aging wooden playground. Additionally, an ADA-accessible path was extended deeper into Harris Shoals Park, enabling easier access for strollers, wheelchairs, and walkers. 

On game days, residents enjoy snacks donated by a local convenience store at a concession stand staffed by older ESP participants trained in retail sales. The impact of the project is already evident, with increased daily activity at the site and positive feedback from users.  

Rocket Field 

Rocket Field, with a history spanning over 100 years, once served Watkinsville well as a venue for various sporting events and festivals. Over the years, a lack of proper maintenance resulted in aging infrastructure, preventing it from being a viable community gathering spot. 

In 2022, through a partnership leveraging city funds, private donations, and community support, Rocket Field underwent a transformative redevelopment. The initiative, spearheaded by a private benefactor alongside the city and healthcare stakeholders, aimed to revitalize the field. Public engagement played a pivotal role, with input sessions refining plans to incorporate amenities like pétanque courts and a stage/bandstand, catering to the desires of older residents and enhancing inclusivity. 

The redesigned Rocket Field now boasts a full-size softball and little league field, upgraded facilities including a scorer’s box, concession stand, restrooms, built-in bleachers, LED field lighting, and a new scoreboard. The design also reclaimed space for open play and additional parking. 

The makeover has contributed to a sense of community belonging, with little league games and recreational spaces bringing community members together. 

Thomas Farm Preserves  

For years, Watkinsville residents and Oconee County citizens noticed the scenic land beyond the ponds on Simonton Bridge Road, yet were unaware of its potential. Following extensive discussions with the landowner, the city capitalized on a rare opportunity to secure and preserve this 100-acre property for public use, preventing excessive development and traffic congestion along the Simonton Bridge corridor. 

During the fiscal year 2024 budget process, the City Council proposed a modest property tax increase to finance the purchase and maintenance of the Thomas Farm Preserve. The public overwhelmingly supported this initiative thanks to multiple comment opportunities and input meetings. A diverse 23-member Steering Committee, including residents with expertise in forestry, biking, and wildlife conservation, was assembled to develop a Master Plan for the preserve. Community suggestions, such as incorporating a community garden and additional parking, were incorporated into the plan. 

A diverse array of community members and conservation experts contributed to ensuring the preserve would be accessible and enjoyed by all. The collaboration extended to local architecture firm SPG, which donated a reduced-cost master plan, and ongoing discussions with other community partners for future site development. 

Through innovative financing strategies and partnerships, including leveraging funds from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority (GEFA) at a low-interest rate, the city successfully acquired and preserved this vital greenspace. This acquisition not only preserves critical watershed and pastoral areas but also establishes the largest publicly owned greenspace in South Oconee County, enhancing environmental sustainability and public health. 

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