2 dreams merge into 1 special place to play

Willie Powell, of Moncks Corner, recalls playing as a kid in the very spot where the new recreation center is being built.

— Five decades ago, when Willie Powell was a kid, he and his buddies sometimes cut a hole in a wire fence behind their modest homes and snuck into the lumberyard. Once inside, they climbed up the mountains of wood chips, and slid down on pieces of cardboard, brown sleds on brown snow.

As he grew older, Powell watched his neighborhood change. The lumberyard closed; the downtown retail district sputtered. Worse, many kids got into drugs and alcohol, and a few ended up in jail or dead.

Powell did his best to help kids stay on better paths: He built Roper Wall Street Park, a children's playground on a piece of private property near his house; he threw Easter egg hunts, ran the “Bucks” basketball program, and, to anyone he could — celebrities, politicians, businessmen — he preached: We need more places for kids to play.

On a recent Thursday, Powell walked toward the place where the wood-chip mountains once stood. “This feels like a prayer being answered,” he said, as construction crews smoothed brown-and-red dirt for new baseball diamonds. The work is part of an ambitious plan to build a recreation center in the center of this small town, a project years in the making, an example of what can happen when dreams merge.

On another warm summer afternoon, Moncks Corner Mayor William Peagler III also stood on the edge of the park, and talked about how the project was born of frustration and hope.

Roughly six years ago, Peagler's then-teenage daughter was playing basketball, but because the area had so few advanced teen athletic facilities, she sometimes ended up playing in Mount Pleasant, 45 minutes away. Irked, Peagler and the town's administrator, Marc Hehn, began work on a new recreation center.

Peagler had other motives. Like Powell, Peagler also was concerned that too many kids were being lost to violence and drugs. Keep teens busy, he thought, and they'd be less likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

Meantime, the town's struggling downtown needed an economic lift. Peagler had seen how baseball and other sports could bring big bucks to host cities; a recreation complex might just be the ticket to draw more people and businesses to East Main Street.

But sports complexes aren't cheap, especially for a town of about 9,000 people and a yearly budget of just $5.6 million. To pull it off, Peagler, Hehn and other town officials needed to be creative.

Over the next few years, they borrowed money in the form of “Build America” bonds, a short-lived Obama administration stimulus program that gave towns substantial tax credits for municipal projects. They earmarked the town's hospitality and accommodations taxes to pay off bondholders. They received government grant money to pay for walking trails.

All told, they cobbled together $8 million for the complex's first phase, and they found the perfect site: Instead of building on cheap land on the town's outskirts, they focused on the 52-acre defunct lumberyard across the tracks from the town's historic train depot — smack in the town's heart instead of one of its limbs.

Crews began work in April and should be finished in the spring. When the first phase is done, the complex will have a handsome concession stand with a pitched roof. Surrounding it will be four lighted baseball diamonds. Football/soccer fields, walking trails and parking lots will be nearby, with sites for a future farmer's market, amphitheater, tennis courts, and, someday, maybe even an aquatics center.

Peagler's daughter is now 22 years old. “This was never about her,” he said. “But maybe my grandchildren will be able to play here someday.”

For Powell, the construction marked the end of a long struggle to persuade town leaders to do more for the town's youths. “Mayor Peagler has done a wonderful job,” he said. “They're building it close to everyone in the community, so everyone has an equal opportunity to be involved.” He looked toward where the wood-chip piles used to be.

“They were a hundred feet high, higher than those trees over there,” he said, lost for a moment in the past. “We used cardboard boxes to slide down the hill, but the best was the hood of a car. We slid down on the hood and went flying into a tree and a briar patch. We didn't need a playground then because the lumberyard was our playground. And now it's coming back again, a playground, back again.”