What happens when community volunteers, a regional conservation organization and civic leaders work together to revitalize a local park? Transformative change! Through the Town to Trail initiative over the past few years, Gordonsville has doubled its public open space and multiplied everyone’s contributions, large and small. Urban conservation restores open space in the built environment where people live and makes access to outdoor recreation and nature more convenient.
Ten years ago, I joined The Piedmont Environmental Council to help conserve the lands and waters of Orange, Madison and Culpeper counties. Since I felt it important to live in the area I was helping protect, my family and I settled in Gordonsville, a scenic town with a welcoming community and deep history. I was excited to work with residents and farmers to conserve land in this region.
A few years later, students from the University of Virginia School of Architecture led a planning charrette in Gordonsville that culminated in their report: Gordonsville Visions. The report emerged from the students’ conversations with community members and outlined specific planning concepts that aligned well with the town’s comprehensive plan. I was delighted by their emphasis on parks and open space, which echoed urban conservation trends emerging across the country, and I saw a gripping opportunity to leverage my real estate experience to conserve and expand the park in the town I call home. I shared with my PEC colleagues the community’s vision for this vibrant park network that could restore the heart of town, and the idea catalyzed committed community members to form a volunteer working group that named the revitalization effort the Town to Trail initiative.
Town to Trail has become an example of residents rallying to address specific needs within their community, while tapping into the support of established organizations. Supplying the energy and creativity to overcome obstacles and develop momentum, the working group refined the vision for the park network, collaborated with the town on park design, and secured PEC sponsorship, which enabled it to secure charitable donations for the initiative.
Growing Green Space
A key component to the initiative was strong and engaged local leadership. Gordonsville’s Town Council, enthusiastic about Town to Trail’s assistance in securing financial contributions, agreed to commit town funding to the effort and help realize the community’s long-held aspiration of refurbishing the park and more-than-70-year-old pool.
Gordonsville’s public pool was noteworthy in its heyday, when community volunteers and philanthropic-minded families developed the town’s first park and swimming pool complex. As one of the only public pools between Charlottesville and Fredericksburg, it enabled a diverse mix of children from across five rural counties, many from under-served communities, to learn to swim. It was an important skill for the activities of the day — exploring the Rapidan River and its tributaries, fishing, jumping off rope swings and canoeing. But 70 years later, the pool desperately needed an update, and the Gordonsville community recognized it was our generation’s turn to step up to the challenge.
Beyond the pool, a checkerboard of vacant and available properties held an opportunity to expand the park to an entire block and connect it to Firemen’s Fairgrounds, which is owned and managed by the Gordonsville Volunteer Fire Company for training and community events.
Within a year, Town to Trail raised $35,000 in private contributions from generous residents and neighbors — half the funding needed for the town to purchase its first parcel and thus kicking off the project’s acquisition phase. Next, the town worked with CSX Railroad to formally acquire a large parcel already in use as park space, but not legally owned by the town. And after two years of intense work, the town fully owned all three parcels that make up the park block.
During this time, Town to Trail continued to raise additional funding that allowed PEC to purchase an oversized parcel the UVA students had identified as a priority in their Gordonsville Visions report, plus an adjacent property that came on the market later. These two parcels, which PEC will donate to the town, complete the connection of the park to Firemen’s Fairgrounds.
With each milestone, Town to Trail members paused to celebrate before quickly moving on to the next challenge. During the pandemic, we wondered whether we could attract the level of funding needed to complete the project. But fortified by one another and driven by a vision of a park network winding through town, we persevered. The obstacles were significant, but we had the benefit of others who’d blazed the trail before us — parents who raised almost $70,000 (mostly from bake sales) for a new pool while their children were still young. The acquisition phase went on to attract about $700,000 in private, municipal, and state funding, multiplying the bake sale proceeds ten-fold!
Moving into the Future
Developing project ideas to enhance the town was fun. Advancing the park network concept through the acquisition phase was a heavy lift. But the real work was just beginning. New park infrastructure, including a regulation-size pool, bathhouse, pavilion, and playground, was estimated at about $3 million, a sum that far exceeded what the town could afford. We now faced the need to secure funding on a whole new order of magnitude.
The Town Council recognized the need for professional park design and sought a creative design firm that could both visualize how the park project would fit seamlessly into the town and recognize the challenges small towns face. Charlottesville-based Land Planning and Design Associates was selected and became a key player, not only in design, but also in sharing valuable experience developing public funding proposals.
Town to Trail had been tracking federal and state funding sources, including the National Park Service’s Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which Congress had fully funded as outdoor recreation surged during the pandemic-inspired lockdown. In January 2022, the National Park Service announced a new LWCF funding cycle with grant proposals due in March. Fortunately, the town was well prepared to meet this deadline.
The stars were beginning to align. The Manning Family Foundation, which had already helped during the acquisition phase, now pledged $1 million, positioning the Town unusually well for attracting additional pledges. With wind in his sails, Mayor Robert Coiner dedicated a weekend to make personal appeals for other commitments. Every dollar we requested in the grant proposal had to be matched by funding from other sources. By the time we submitted the grant proposal, we’d raised $1.6 million locally, allowing us to submit an overall proposal of $3.2 million, just above the amount estimated for the completed project.
The community anxiously awaited news of the grant proposal outcome through the nail-biting summer months. What a delight to learn in September that the Gordonsville park project was one of only six park projects in Virginia awarded! The mayor exclaimed in a Facebook post, “Best news ever!” I think we can all agree that he’s exactly right.
The next 18-24 months will be an exciting time for the community as park construction heads toward completion in 2024. We will keep you abreast of progress as the park’s construction phase unfolds. Gordonsville’s park project is a clear example of how collaboration and collective effort can unify a community toward a common goal. No doubt it will continue to do so as the new public gathering space emerges.