This story originally published online at The 9th Street Journal.
With a roller rink and a go-kart track, Wheels Fun Park in East Durham used to be the happy site of birthday parties, food truck rodeos, and even a Labor Day luau. But since it closed in 2020, visitors now are more likely to find rusted gates, trampled banners, and peeling paint. Some maps still list it as a COVID-19 vaccination center.
But there are new signs of life for the dilapidated site, purchased by the city soon after it closed. The chain-link fence on the front of the property is covered with a blue and green banner that declares, “PARK IN PROGRESS.” This former landmark of fun is the proposed site of a “Splash and Play Project” by Durham Parks and Recreation to meet the aquatic needs of a rapidly growing city.
The proposed water park was the main topic at the Feb. 8 meeting of the Recreation Advisory Commission, a nine-member citizen group that advises city officials about parks and sporting facilities. The discussion sparked some fond memories. “I think everybody in Durham at some point has been to Wheels and half of Durham has grown up in Wheels,” said Jason Jones, assistant director of the parks department.
The Splash and Play Project, while certainly the most significant, was just one of the items covered at the crack-of-dawn commission meeting (7:30 a.m.!). The group, per its bylaws, is on a mission “to advocate for the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Durham Community.” Lately this has meant trying to raise the quality of amenities to match the city’s rapid growth.
“It was a different world when I moved to Durham 18 years ago,” Jill Thomas, a commission member, said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. She cited the booming population and the cash flow that has come with it, but said “our recreational facilities have not kept pace with our growth.” She said the aquatics project is part of the solution, but that the parks department needs the support of the public to get “an infusion of cash. So it’s time for us to start beating the drum to do that.”
The commission acts as a bridge between the parks department and the public. Lesley Stracks-Mullem, the newly reelected commission chair, said the commission is a sounding board for city parks officials and “provides direct feedback, open and honest feedback to them.”
That feedback was showcased while the parks leadership presented the latest updates to the water park project, a massive proposal that would include a renovation of the Wheels rink and construction of what would be the largest aquatic facility in the city.
Groundbreaking ceremonies are still years away – if the project can get the necessary funds – but the commission members were already digging into the details at each step of the proposal, playing proxy for the residents whose tax dollars were at stake.
Commission member Girija Mahajan had lots of questions. “What’s the capacity? …Will the aquatic space be fenced off from the playground in this splash area? …And this will be on a bus route?” Another member pointed out that without changes to the current bus routes, people would have to walk a mile.
Jill Thomas brought some of her own interests as a swimmer. “It’s a minimum, five-guard setup, right?” she asked about lifeguards needed for a proposed lazy river. Afterward, she talked to another member about the orientation of a proposed lap pool, noting that it would leave swimmers looking directly into the sun.
“We all have some of our own agenda, right?” she said after the meeting.
Thomas pointed out that it’s difficult for many Durham residents to make their voices heard in the civic process. “It’s really hard to stay on top of this and know when it’s time for you to go make public comments about these things,” she told The 9th Street Journal. When the city sought public comment on the aquatic project, she told her swimming friends to get involved. “This is your opportunity to weigh in so you can get a decent pool here in Durham.”
To close the meeting, members asked about next steps. “You’ve armed us with information,” said Mahajan. “Is it now time to help the public understand that we need to rally our council members to fund it?”
“Yes, it’s time for you to do that,” said a parks official.