Platte County’s extensive six-park, 800-acre system with 27 miles of trails was built essentially from scratch.
When the half-cent parks tax was passed in 2000, the county’s entire assets were encompassed in a single 13-acre park.
The passage of the parks tax — a voter referendum that was green-lighted with overwhelming voter support — meant that Platte County could create a vision for the parks of the future.
Platte County built a whole new park system in the recent past, while parks in other areas of the Northland go back decades. But leaders from local governments and the community alike continue to work to improve their parks in all areas of the Northland.
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In Platte County, rather than use the resources to create a park system on their own, officials decided to build connections with the county’s cities and developers, former commissioner Betty Knight said.
The emphasis was on partnerships.
Knight said it was important not only to those who saw value in parks but also to those who could translate that value into a communicable idea. Hiring Parks Director Brian Nowotny in 2001 was key.
“I thought ‘Which one of these gentlemen … would give me the answer that I think we needed for our size of county,’ ” Knight said. “And who do I want to sit around the table with and discuss parks in the future?”
It was a great opportunity for Nowotny. “One of the first things that Betty and the other commissioners challenged me and the parks staff with was building relationships,” he said.
One of the results of this partnership is the 2.4-mile Line Creek Trail snaking through wooded areas in the Northland.
On Oct. 3, the trail hosted the Clay-Platte Trackers, an organization that has partnered with the Platte County to promote activities on the path.
On the Clay-Platte Trackers website, the group calls the trail “a walker’s jewel,” lauding its abundance of wildlife, including deer and a wealth of birds, including hawks and cardinals.
The trail, which starts at 68th Street and Gower Road, is the scenic way from Barry Road to Riverside.
The trail also features a bicycle self-service repair station.
Line Creek Trail is one of five within the county’s 27-mile system.
The partnership with the Clay-Platte Trackers is just one of a bounty of relationships Platte County has formed to create its parks system.
The county’s parks offerings will get a new addition later this fall when a park in Platte Woods at 7305 N.W. Prairie View Road opens. The park was created with the help of the Outreach Grant Program, a funding mechanism created by the county commission to promote the development of recreational facilities and green spaces.
The county makes available $250,000 annually for local governments, public subdivisions, school districts and nonprofits.
The county’s parks efforts have created partnerships with each of Platte County’s cities, all of the school districts, and several of the nonprofits operating there.
The half-cent parks tax that’s largely responsible for creating the system actually has its roots in efforts to build the county’s law-enforcement resources.
When she assumed office the year after her successful 1994 election, Knight joined the other commissioners in building the political framework for successful referendum advocacy. Groups with stakeholders were assembled, public focus groups were gathered and a clear communication regarding the severity of the jail issue and the need to have new prison space was made forcefully clear to Platte Countians.
The law-enforcement tax came up for a vote in ’96 and passed with a 78 percent approval rating.
The cause of success: “Mainly, we told people what we wanted to do and what the tax was for,” Knight said.
The six-year half-cent tax funded a $4 million law enforcement center before it expired.
“We found that that scenario helped us in future,” she added.
As the law enforcement tax vote was coming into fruition, Knight recalls the county was fleshing out a long-range vision in a comprehensive report titled “Platte Profile 2020,” named for the year the plan would end.
“Bring citizens together from all around the county. Talk about what you want to do and how you want to accomplish your goals,” she said.
The voter engagement philosophy drove the successful passage of tax initiatives benefiting law enforcement and, later, parks.
Knight said she and the other commissioners engaged Platte Countians in a dialogue about the parks system, but eschewed the idea of selling them on parks. The process that created them was citizen-guided, Knight said.
“Parks are part of a quality of life that people find when they live in Platte County and they decide they want to stay here or raise their family or look to move from other areas,” Nowotny said.
The half-cent parks sales tax was approved in 2000 and renewed in 2009.
Sitting Commissioner Beverly Roper grew up in Greensboro, N.C. One of her formative experiences was at her hometown local park.
“When a child gets on a bicycle, that spells freedom for that child,” Roper said. “Every day, I would get home from school, I would get on my bicycle and I would join Walter Bruce and Angus Stephens, and the three of us would ride our bikes to Anniversary Garden, which was a beautiful park around creeks.
“That’s where I developed as a human being.”
The 1965 authorization of the Smithville Dam created Smithville Lake,which today is the 10th largest body of water administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Kansas City division.
Around the Clay County lake is a 5,000-acre park jointly managed by the corps and the county.
Construction on the 4,000-foot dam that created the lake began in 1972 and was completed in 1977.
At its typical water levels, the lake covers 7,190 surface acres and runs 18 miles into Little Platte River Valley, an area that originally was home to the Missouri Indians before being settled by Smithville founder Humphrey Smith.
At its farthest point north, the lake reaches Plattsburg, where Perkins Park is located.
In addition to ample hunting and fishing opportunities, Clay County offers use of two full-service marinas at the lake, Camp Branch Marina and Paradise Point Marina. Rental boats are offered to explore the lake’s 7,200 acres.
The marinas were privately managed by companies before the county assumed that role.
Aside from the lake, the county has two other parks: Tryst Falls and Rocky Hollow Lake. The county also manages a handful of historic sites and museums.
Smithville Lake is Clay County’s flagship park offering.
Charlie Barr, the county’s former chief parks administrator, said the lake will benefit from additional resources with modest investment, for example, building cabins along the 175 miles of shoreline.
The cabins would complement the site’s wealth of outdoor recreational assets, including 858 campsites — a third of which have electrical connections — and 200 individual picnic sites.
All of the campground’s restrooms and a fishing dock and picnic shelter are accessible to the disabled.
Heavy summer rains raised the water levels in the lake — in some places as much as 8 feet higher than normal — but the lake’s administrators said the dam was in no danger.
Smithville Lake had been open for five seasons when Barr joined the county in 1988.
Barr retired in 2012. The following year, the county leadership decided to retire the parks director position itself and restructured the parks staff into other departments and responsibilities.
A small group of Liberty residents opted not to wait for governmental effort to enhance their outdoor spaces.
Residents of the Arthur’s Addition neighborhood had led a partnership with the city to create a 2-acre park east of the city square.
On Sunday evenings, neighbors meet at the newly created park for a meet-and-greet-and-play session for their families.
On one such chilly Sunday dusk, Karen Ridder, a city parks board member and organizer for the new park, walked from the new park through the thicket of of large weeds over crushed grass to a wide-open field on the other side.
“Basically, you’ve got a neighborhood that’s over 100 years old, and we’re retrofitting it with a park,” said Ridder, a freelance writer who contributes to The Kansas City Star.
The park, west of Liberty Court Apartments, will hold a formal opening celebration Nov. 1.
“I think the city of Liberty realized that this was a relatively inexpensive way to invest in a neighborhood that had been overlooked for a long time,” she said.
Ridder said her desire to see the vacant land turned into a parks space is as old as her move to Liberty, which occurred three springs ago.
The idea wasn’t viable until the city of Liberty took over the land a year ago. The neighborhood association’s advocacy turned the city onto dedicating the 2 acres as a new park.
The Arthur’s Addition park will be the first new Liberty park in nearly half a century.
Liberty holds 12 parks totalling 500 acres with 16 miles of trails. Chris Wilson, manager of parks and open spaces, said the age of the parks system makes it a less valuable access than it could be otherwise.
Aside from novel additions like Stocksdale Park’s dedicated dog area and disc golf course, “They haven’t been updated in decades,” he said.
To address this in future building, the Liberty City Council has passed ordinances to pair new development with parks investment.
One ordinance specifies new housing developments need to also create pocket parks. For every 100 houses built, developers are obligated to set aside 1.6 acres of land dedicated to parks.
The second ordinances calls for housing developments that intersect within the city’s proposed 80-mile trails and greenway plan to build the connecting segment of path.
“From my standpoint, I would say that the parks that we do have are spacious ... but they haven’t been updated in decades,” Wilson said. “There are special features that a lot of newer parks have that we don’t.”
The Arthur’s Addition park builders polled children in the surrounding schools and found that treehouses ranked high on their wishes for a new park. (The final product will look more like a raised deck around the trunk of the tree than an actual, liability-ridden house in a tree.)
They also found that children wanted more open spaces.
When the builders took to the land with equipment in late June, they installed equipment spaced out broadly across the park.
The equipment was funded through a city neighborhood grant of about $7,000.
City staffers, including Evans, have been out to help place equipment and see the project through.
“The real story is that I used to walk by this place and I thought, ‘Wow, that’d be a great place for a park if that house got torn down.’ Then the house got torn down,” Ridder said.
From there, she met with the neighborhood association, which decided to join her in the effort.
From there, Ridder said she would go to the local bus stop and try to solicit new support from people outside the traditional civic circles she runs in.
“I realized that there were neighbors who didn’t have cars and couldn’t drive to the city’s parks,” she said. “You have to cross a railroad track or a busy road so kids could play.”
She said the improvements could be modeled after what’s happened next door.
“Platte County’s done some amazing things in the last decade,” Ridder said. “Liberty’s moving in the right direction.”