Making city more beautiful

Charleston Park Conservancy teams will hand out flowers from 5 to 7 p.m. today at Colonial Lake. Darla Moore created the conservancy a year ago to help improve the city's parks.

Alan Hawes

South Carolina financier and philanthropist Darla Moore has given $10 million to launch a nonprofit group that hopes to energize the public toward beautifying Charleston's parks.

Moore created the Charleston Parks Conservancy a year ago, but the group just went public this week to seek major volunteers or "lead park angels."

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called Moore's gift an unprecedented act of generosity.

"Charleston is known for its beautiful built environment, and working with the Charleston Parks Conservancy, we will increasingly make Charleston a place also renowned for the beauty and quality of its parks," he said. "We've been very excited since we first started discussing this over a year and a half ago."

Moore, a Lake City native and University of South Carolina graduate, bought a home in downtown Charleston six years ago. Her reputation as one of the nation's toughest businesswomen is rivaled by her reputation for generosity. She already has donated $45 million to her alma mater's business school, which bears her name.

In announcing the conservancy, she said, "While we have done remarkable things to preserve and enhance our buildings and the Charleston way of life, it is now time to reinvigorate the areas our citizens use most and enjoy: our parks."

She said she hopes the conservancy

"will serve as a catalyst for a renewed private-public partnership between the city and its many wonderful neighborhoods to preserve, sustain and enhance the beauty of Charleston's parks and public spaces."

In its first year, the conservancy quietly has hired two employees, helped beautify the public areas around South Windermere Shopping Center and spent $50,000 to finance design work to improve Colonial Lake and the neighboring Moultrie Playground.

Conservancy Executive Director Jim Martin said the idea was influenced by the success of the Central Park Conservancy in New York, which was formed in the 1980s to improve Manhattan's largest and most well-known park. Martin, who has an office in the city's parks department building, said the conservancy kept a low profile in its first year as it developed its relationship with the city.

"We also needed to figure out who we were, to develop our brand and go out to the public," he said.

Those interested in volunteering are asked to apply by July 11, and after that, the conservancy will choose five lead angels to recruit still more volunteers to raise money, raise awareness and even dig in the dirt.

Martin said Moore donated start-up money and created a $9 million endowment, which will be invested to provide a continuing source of income.

The conservancy will partner with the city on different capital improvements and maintenance projects in the city's 120 parks. The first work has included consulting on renovations to Colonial Lake, Moultrie Playground and Wragg Square, as well as helping develop the new Concord Park. Martin said it also plans to reach some of the smaller, neglected area parks.

Martin said some parks, such as Hampton Park, have some cool stuff, horticulture wise, while others, like Colonial Lake, are rather flat. "It's grass, oleanders and a few trees, and that's it," he said of the land surrounding the lake.

Charleston Parks Director Steve Livingston said the conservancy "is one of the most exciting things that I've seen happen to the city parks system since I've been here (in 1978). It's a huge gift to the city and every citizen."

The city's park system has grown to 120 parks that cover about 1,600 acres downtown, West Ashley and James, Johns and Daniel islands.

Livingston said the conservancy's efforts won't necessarily pay off this year or next, just like it took the Central Park Conservancy several years to transform that park from an often scary place to a welcoming garden. "It's going to take a few years, but ultimately, the impact that they can have on the public realm in the city is phenomenal."

Conservancy teams will hand out free flowers from 5-7 p.m. today at Colonial Lake to spread the word, and they'll appear at other city parks later this week doing the same.

"This is only going to work with community support, through volunteers as well as financially," Martin said. "We hope this is what the community wants. It's their park system."