Rec center, new playground to help keep kids out of trouble

MONCKS CORNER — Willie Powell looks toward the bulldozer tracks in the mud. That's where the merry-go-round used to spin. He looks to the right. A piece of playground equipment is on its side, ripped from the ground he worked so hard to groom.

Powell spent years building a park for neighborhood children, and though he knows he has to close the park, "when I come here, I start thinking, and oh man ..." He pauses.

But then he thinks about the new park he's building three miles away on Kitfield Road, and in his mind's eye, a vision forms:

Over there by the forest's edge, he'll build a bigger and better basketball court with bleachers. Over here, he'll put new playground equipment that isn't caked with rust.

"And," he says, with a smile, "it doesn't bother me so much now that we're closing the old park, because the town says it's going to take care of my kids."

In Moncks Corner, Powell is the Johnny Appleseed of parks. Over the years, he's scrounged up equipment for four neighborhood playgrounds, all on private land. His baby was Roper Wall Street Park.

Powell and neighbors built Roper Wall Street Park with permission from the land's owner, Richard Roper, a retired grocer. But Roper, who is in his 90s, recently told Powell that he wanted to give the property to his heirs. The park had to go.

The news hit Powell like a sucker punch. To Powell, these parks are more than places for children to play; they're lifelines that keep kids from drowning in drugs and violence.

At Roper Wall Street Park, he regularly formed basketball teams, hoping to keep children busy and give them structure. "But I could only do so much, and the needs are so great," he said. More than a dozen children on his teams have been locked up or killed in recent years.

Town leaders, led by Mayor William Peagler, began a new push this year to fill this recreation void, unveiling a conceptual plan for a large recreation complex. In late November, Town Council took steps to raise up to $3.5 million. Town officials are considering using hospitality and accommodations tax money to help pay for the project. The town also hopes to land some government grants.

"The spirit of the whole area is waking up to the need to give our children more recreation," Powell says.

So while he hopes the town will build the recreation complex in a central location — ideally not far from Roper Wall Street Park — he's focusing on a new project on the town's outskirts, in a field off Kitfield Road. Santee Cooper owns the land, and the utility's crews volunteered to help Powell move equipment from Roper Wall Street Park.

One recent afternoon, as the December shadows grow long, Powell stands by loads of red dirt for the new basketball court. He wants to build one 100 feet long and 65 feet wide — big enough for full-court games. "The old one was smaller, and some of the older kids who run hard, didn't like to have tournaments there because of the size. This new one will be regulation-sized."

Already, he's received donations of dirt and transportation from Welborn Inc., RWG Trucking, Star Redi-Mix and the Austin dirt pit. True Value Hardware donated wire and lumber. He figures it will take six months and thousands of dollars to put it all together.

"I don't sleep now because I'm thinking about this so much. It's something I have to do. When we found out we had to close Roper Wall Street, I told the boys, 'Don't boycott that, because I promise you we'll build you a bigger one.' "