Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department Enhances Community Life

First Ward Park in Uptown Charlotte

By Ryan Kouame

Throughout the last several decades, Mecklenburg County has experienced continuous, sustainable growth. The county now has a population of 1.17 million, compared to the 404,000 residents it had in 1980. With Charlotte ranked the 15th most populous city and the seventh fastest-growing metro area in the United States, the County has maintained a clear vision, framework, and actionable steps for its development, especially when it comes to parks and recreation. The Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department’s mission is to to enhance community wellness through recreation, open space and natural resources, contributes to that vision.

W. Lee Jones, is the director of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department and is responsible for managing the overall planning and direction of more than 230 parks over 22,000 acres throughout the county. Jones joined the organization in 2004. He was previously the division director of Capital Planning and Alliance Services where he worked on several notable projects, including First Ward Park, Romare Bearden Park, the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex at Matthews and the reopening of the American Legion Memorial Stadium.

Growing up in the projects in Richmond, Virginia, and being Mecklenburg County’s first Black director of Park and Recreation, Jones understands the importance of having access to recreational activities, especially in minority and underserved areas. After he became director of the department in 2018, Jones immediately began to foster an environment of equity and inclusion.

“We must make it known that everyone is welcome here,” said Jones. “This extends to our staff and our patrons.”

Jones is no stranger to vanguard status. He was the first Black person to receive a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Virginia School of Architecture. Before joining Mecklenburg County, Lee worked for several national and international architectural firms. He also served as a facilities planner for Arlington County, Virginia, where he supervised the design and construction of the Arlington County Justice Center. He also served as deputy director of the Prince George’s County Department of Environmental Resources in Maryland.

In 2022, Jones received the AIA Charlotte Citizen Architect Award, which recognizes the work of architects who contribute to the development of laws, regulations, policies, and initiatives that promote excellence in architecture. Jones was also honored with the 2023 Charlotte’s Men of Change award, which recognizes Black community leaders for their work as business owners, teachers, political and justice activists, trainers and visionaries.

The county’s comprehensive plan

Meck Playbook, an 18-month comprehensive planning and outreach project, is a blueprint to guide the Park and Recreation Department’s response to public need for park and recreation opportunities. Below are just a few concepts that the department has been working on as part of its implementation of the Meck Playbook:

Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)

The Capital Improvement Plan is designed to meet the needs of the County’s growing community. Using creative approaches and community input, the program was developed around projects that move the community forward with a strong focus on addressing community infrastructure needs, which included parks and recreation. In the 2000s, Jones advocated for referendums to develop the park system, which were approved at a total of $319 million. He then went on to hire planners, architects, and landscape architects to transform the park and recreation system into what it is today.

Increased focus on land acquisition

Hundreds of people move to Mecklenburg County every day. With those numbers, the County has ramped up its focus on land acquisition to protect natural resources and increased access to recreational spaces for its new and current residents.

In 2024, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners plans to allocate $50 million for land acquisition and another $50 million to purchase land between 2025 to 2028. Currently, the County has a total of nearly 3,000 acres put aside as Parkland Reserves for more than 60 parks, greenways, trails and nature preserves to be funded and developed.

“We are ambitious in our land acquisition goals,” said Jones. “As custodians of public lands, it is our responsibility to protect these resources for future generations, to support human health and wellbeing, and to ensure all residents have equitable access to outdoor spaces.”

Engaging with neighbors

Residents are invited to engage with the park and recreation staff on current projects as well as priorities for future development. The Parkland Reserves webpage also lists upcoming developments and will host community meetings to help decide what gets developed once funding is allocated.

An innovative approach to community engagement has been required for the historic Latta Reimagined project. Jones is working with other County staff to engage in a holistic assessment of best practices for interpreting difficult eras in history, including slavery. The guiding values developed for the Latta project – truth, transparency, compassion, transformation, and unity – have proved to be useful as Park and Recreation staff work side-by-side with community partners to plan for the site’s planned reopening in 2026. “We’ve taken a big step forward, but we still have a long way to go,” Jones said.

Jones received a 2023 Excellence in Leadership Award from the Charlotte Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP for his efforts on this project.