Untapped potential

Charleston County’s undeveloped park properties:

55-acre Ashem site near Charles Towne Landing in West Ashley

500-acre Bulow Plantation near Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley

1,600-acre Long Savannah site near Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley

700-acre Laurel Hill Plantation in Mount Pleasant

38-acre, historic McLeod Plantation on James Island

What’s next?

The Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission held public meetings last year to learn what residents wanted from their parks. The consultant, Greentlay Inc., is using that information to develop a comprehensive plan for the future of the county’s parks and facilities. The group will complete its report within the next month.

Source: PRC

When Susan Sigwald was growing up, she could ride her horse along Main Road on Johns Island.

Now, Sigwald, 45, saddles up at the Mullet Hall Equestrian Center at Johns Island County Park, a facility owned by Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission.

The park has more than 20 miles of trails lined with moss-draped oaks and lots of open meadows. “You see 20 to 40 deer every time you ride,” Sigwald said. “It’s incredible.”

Few county residents who don’t ride horses know about the equestrian center, which has show rings, stalls and horse-washing stations.

The equestrian center doesn’t offer boarding or trail rides for people who don’t own horses. Users must bring their horses to the park.

Tom O’Rourke, executive director of the Park and Recreation Commission, said even fewer people know that the 60-acre center is part of a 738-acre, undeveloped park. If Charleston County Council had approved a special financing plan for the Beach Co.’s adjacent Kiawah River Plantation development, Johns Island County Park would have received a $5.2 million shot in the arm, O’Rourke said.

The commission would have used the money to develop a rural, agriculturally themed park, consistent with the island environment. It likely would have included pedestrian and bike trails and community gardens, he said. “It was not going to be (Beach Co. President) John Darby’s playground. It was going to be a county park.”

But County Council earlier this month shot down the Beach Co.’s request to form a tax-increment financing district, or TIF, for the development, so plans for Johns Island County Park will roll out more slowly.

For now, it’s mostly just the equestrian center.

Donna Gueldner, superintendent of park and recreation services, said it’s a bit unusual to have a public equestrian-themed park. But there was a call for such a facility when the county purchased the Johns Island site for $2.8 million in 1994. It was similar to the demand today among some park users for a skateboard park, she said.

Sigwald, who owns the Island Tack Shop on Johns Island, said the park is important. “With the city moving farther into the country, there’s nowhere to ride a horse anymore,” she said.

And the second generation of her family now is using Mullet Hall. Her 11-year-old daughter, Abigail, participates in horse shows, which are held regularly there.

O’Rourke said the county doesn’t sponsor those shows; show promoters rent the facility. The commission tries to have all of its parks raise money in some way, he said. Mullet Hall does that through equestrian events the way some other parks do it through water parks.

Gueldner said Johns Island County Park isn’t yet financially self-sufficient, but it’s getting there. It costs $288,819 each year to run the park. Last year, it brought in $173,921 from 30 horse shows.

O’Rourke said that the TIF would have been a boon for the park, but because the island isn’t a highly populated part of the county, it’s not on the top of the priority list for parks and park improvements.

The top priority is the West Ashley area, he said, where there currently aren’t any county parks. The county, however, owns three pieces of undeveloped future park land there.

But, O’Rourke said, the additional $5.2 million for Johns Island County Park would have been welcome. Each year, the commission pays out about $500,000 for the county’s various TIFs, and it gets nothing immediately in return. With the Beach Co.’s plan, “for the first time, we were going to receive something back from a TIF.”

But for now, Mullet Hall’s trails will remain largely isolated. And that suits people such as Sigwald just fine.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.