A feasibility analysis of the planned public park and community/recreation center on Barrow County School System property in Winder found that the project enjoys broad community support among those aware of it, but that some fine-tuning to the overall plan and more funding commitments will be needed for it to ultimately come to fruition.

After confidentially interviewing 45 local business, government and community leaders over the last three months, First Community Development of Atlanta late last month presented its findings to the board of directors for the Barrow Community Foundation, which is spearheading efforts to build the project at the system’s Center for Innovative Teaching (old Russell Middle School) between West Candler Street and West Midland Avenue.

According to the authors of the report, the interview responses showed that the project has support because it would provide families with a much-needed recreational playground/park and a have positive economic impact in the county. But they also noted that a large number of those interviewed said they believe the foundation’s five-year fundraising goal of $17.7 million is “too ambitious” and may not be achievable through either public or private funding resources in the county. According to the report, several respondents questioned whether the foundation, which has primarily focused on scholarship funding over its 15-year run and is taking on its first project of this magnitude, would be able to successfully deliver on it. Others questioned whether there would be enough collaboration between local governments to help the plan succeed.

In its report, First Community Development recommended that the foundation immediately launch a fundraising campaign to bring in a minimum of $4 million from public and private sources over the next year. The $4 million goal “appears realistic,” according to the report, but representatives with First Community Development said the campaign “should be launched immediately in order to capitalize on the significant interest” in the plan.

Under the proposed timeline laid out by First Community Development, prep and organization work for the campaign, including refinement of the five-year plan, enlistment of top campaign leaders will begin now, with top-level fundraising solicitations beginning in September and continuing through the fall and early winter. A formal public kickoff for the campaign would occur in January.

Company representatives stressed that committed volunteer leadership for the fundraising effort would be critical to the project’s success but noted that the interviews “did not produce a clear consensus regarding potential and willing leadership for a fundraising campaign.” Still, 58% said they would be willing to serve or would consider serving on a campaign, with more than a third saying they would take an active role in the campaign if given the opportunity.

The project, currently projected for a five-year buildout, is proposed to feature several elements — including a community “destination” playground that would have educational elements incorporated into its design and be inclusive for children of all ages and those with disabilities; a water play area; walking path; basketball/volleyball courts; outdoor reading spaces; outdoor amphitheater; sculpture and art garden; dog park; picnic pavilions; historical-information signs and a building that would include art showcases and conference space.

The school system would continue to own the property and is exploring setting up a land trust for the property that would be governed by two school board members, two community foundation members, a representative from the Barrow County Historical Society and five to seven at-large community members.

Lynn Stevens, the community foundation’s executive director and a Barrow County Board of Education member, said this week that the goal remains to break ground on the project in 2023 and that the foundation’s steering committees were scheduled to hold meetings this week to begin implementing First Community Development’s recommendations for the fundraising campaign.

“I don’t think anybody was really surprised,” Stevens said of the foundation board’s reactions to the feasibility study findings. “This is the first major project the foundation has really taken on. The good news we took from it is there is a lot of enthusiasm in the community for this and people see it as a need and are willing to commit money to it.”

According to the report, a majority of interviewees cited a “limited” pool of local investors as an obstacle to the foundation reaching the $17.7 million fundraising goal over five years to help build and pay for building maintenance at the community center. Of those interviewed, 24% said the goal was attainable.

“Even then, these respondents were quick to point out that ‘if you get the right people, the money is here,’” the report’s authors wrote. “These interviewees also noted that community buy-in is essential for success.”

Stevens has said that the foundation has already garnered some funding commitments and has been pouring research into grant opportunities and funding available through outside foundations in anticipation that local money may not entirely carry the project.

“We’ve known all along that ($17.7 million) was ambitious and that a majority of the funding would likely come through grants and other foundations,” she said. “We’re getting together a game plan for where we go from here, how to market this, solicit funding and get more commitments.”

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