By Jody Steinberg

“We’re here because a lot of families need a place to play,” Commissioner Kathie Gannon told a full room at the Briarwood Recreation Center on May 11. More than 50 neighbors, kids in tow, came out to show DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis their commitment to the center and to enlist his support for a 10-year-old plan to upgrade and update the center and grounds.

The plan began in 1999 at a meeting between Drew Valley Civic Association (DVCA) representatives and DeKalb Parks and Recreation Department staff. The “2000 Plan” became a blueprint in 2000, a funded plan in 2001 and almost happened in 2002 before falling dormant. Last fall, with the promise of a new administration, DVCA advocates appealed anew to Commissioners Jeff Rader and Kathie Gannon, who agreed to help resuscitate the plan.

The commissioners allocated $240,000 for immediate improvements, which will begin soon, including new energy-efficient glass windows and a rooftop air conditioner for the gym, upgraded electrical panels, soffit and fascia replacement, and painting. The repairs are budgeted for $141,700, but Rader doesn’t want to spend the remainder of the allocation yet.

“We believe we need a bigger vision for this park,” Rader told the crowd. That vision includes better access to the surrounding neighborhoods and green space, improved trails and play areas, and an inviting swim area where kids can “do more than just jump in the pool.”

Meeting organizer Katie Oehler, the DVCA Zoning and Land Use Committee chair, invited Ellis to visit Briarwood, hoping he would agree to revive and implement the master plan to make the center more user-friendly. “Both of our commissioners are committed to kick-starting park improvements,” Oehler said. “We want CEO Ellis to be on board as well.”

Other, well-used rec centers in DeKalb are more consistent with national standards, which average 50,000 square feet in size and have inviting aquatic centers.

At less than 10,000 square feet, aging, neglected Briarwood is more likely to drive people away, people told Ellis as they toured the building and grounds together. Although it wasn’t mentioned over the cacophony of crying babies and moving chairs, with no ceiling, the only meeting room proved to have woefully inadequate acoustics.

Residents repeatedly told Ellis about the need for pool improvements, including easier access from parking, shade and play structures, chairs, and safer areas for small kids. Ball fields and meeting space were also on the wish list.

Ten years ago, the county agreed to a land swap with a developer and received streetfront property on Briarwood Road in exchange for the ball fields in the back of the complex, a move that was intended to jump-start the master plan. The developer also upgraded the tennis courts and built a new parkway entrance from Briarwood Road. Ever since, neighbors have wanted to move the playground, which has been broken for over a year, and a gazebo, to the more visible location near the street.

After a tour of the center, pool and grounds, Ellis concurred that it is time to brush off the 2000 master plan, update it with citizen input and begin the improvements. Within six weeks another working meeting will be held at which residents can provide input to the master plan.

Ellis said the changes will come, in stages.

Oehler hopes the next stage will move the playground and a picnic gazebo, making the park more visible to the community. “The county acquired this premium corner of property,” Oehler said, referring to the proposed site. “And nothing’s been done since. It was supposed to be the jewel of the park.”