This is a tale of two city parks in Macclenny, both of which are receiving unprecedented attention, though each for a different reason.
It is the best of times for Heritage Park, which has sprung from humble beginnings as a volunteer-created restored village on Lowder Street a few years ago to become the town’s showcase for all sorts of activities, including festivals, reunions, historic demonstrations, school field trips, visits with Santa Claus or just strolling along the grounds.
Less than a mile away, at Macclenny’s City Park at the duck pond between West Boulevard and Eighth Street, it is the worst of times. It has become a place where few venture at night, other than transients, vandals and others who go there to hang out, drink and smoke pot.
City officials have discussed both parks recently, heaping praise on Heritage Park for becoming an attractive asset that is rapidly becoming self-sustaining through modest admission fees, while lamenting City Park for becoming a less attractive nuisance.
At the December 10 city commission meeting, City Manager Phil Rhoden said there has been “an ongoing problem at City Park” with vandalism, vagrants and transients sleeping in the bushes and people drinking and using drugs.
“The sheriff’s office has raided the park and made some drug arrests and we’ve cleaned out some of the brush where transients had moved in and were living,” Mr. Rhoden said.
In addition to drugs and alcohol offenses, the park has been a target of vandals who have damaged children’s playground equipment, picnic pavilions and bathrooms.
“Originally, we had 10 picnic tables there,” Mr. Rhoden said. “Now, we’re down to three. They’ve destroyed them.”
However, he said the city and the Baker County Sheriff’s Office are on a mission to clean up the park and make it a wholesome, safe environment for children and families alike once again.
“We’re going to stay on top of it,” the city manager said.
Major Gerald Gonzalez, the sheriff’s operations chief, echoed the city manager’s concerns.
“It’s a beautiful park,” Major Gonzalez said. “But it’s also attracted some folks who want to smoke marijuana, drink, spray paint stuff and vandalize stuff, and other unlawful purposes.”
Increased patrols and random spot checks during the night, he said, are already having a positive effect, including several arrests.
“We’re going to put a stop to it,” he said. “We’ve increased our presence up there and we’re determined to make that place a good place for people to go to. We’re in and out of there on a regular basis day and night.”
Major Gonzalez said he knows people who are reluctant to go to City Park because they’re afraid.
“I’ve heard, personally, from women who like to go up there to the walking track but they’re afraid of what’s going on,” he said.
He said women are advised not to go to the park alone. It’s always safer to go with a friend or two, he said.
For the most part, illegal drug offenses at the park has been limited to individuals smoking marijuana, rather than selling the drug, which would be a felony.
“We’re not getting a lot of reports on that (drug sales), nor seeing any evidence of it,” the major said.
In addition to increased law enforcement at the park, Mr. Rhoden said the bathrooms are now locked at night to cut down on vandalism and keep people from sleeping inside them. They’re locked about an hour after sundown and reopen about 7 a.m., he said, adding that the sheriff’s office has the key.
Signs state that the park closes at sundown and reopens the next morning, but it is not fenced and locked, so there is nothing to keep people from going there at any time. Also, there is no law prohibiting anyone from visiting the park at any hour — as long as they’re not doing anything illegal.
“If they’re up there for a good reason and not to destroy city property, or use drugs or drink, we’re pretty much going to let it be,” Major Gonzalez said.
But that doesn’t mean the park and people in it are not being observed. Right now, it’s just deputies who keep an eye on the park, but in the near future long-distance surveillance cameras could begin recording everything — and everybody — on the grounds day and night.
City officials have agreed to research the cost of installing cameras at various locations to help cut down on undesirable activity there. Maj. Gonzalez said the sheriff’s office supports the idea.
“These are becoming increasingly popular with a lot of businesses and public places,” he said. “Some people don’t like them, but they’re very effective (as a deterrent and prosecution tool) and provide great evidence."