TINA ALVEY, The Register-Herald
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — Barely two blocks off the Spa City’s now-bustling Main Street, Brad Paisley Community Park is an oasis of calm, its peacefulness punctuated by peals of laughter from a half-dozen preschoolers as their mothers quietly chat nearby.
That’s the scene most days in this green space that was born out of the flood of 2016, according to Pat Harper, president of the White Sulphur Springs Main Street organization that owns and operates the park.
“It’s just a place to gather — to enjoy your friends and neighbors,” Harper said, sitting on a folding chair in a sunny room inside the park’s Community Building. “We couldn’t make it happen without the city and the good citizens of White Sulphur who take such good care of this place.”
Brad Paisley Community Park was a gift from the Homes for White Sulphur Springs organization to WSS Main Street. Many of the residents of Hope Village, a neighborhood built in the wake of the flood by Homes for WSS, owned homes prior to the flood on the land where the park is now situated. Those residents traded their flooded property for a lot in Hope Village and a new start in life, well above the creekside they had left behind.
Homes for WSS cleared the flood-demolished houses from the low-lying areas bordering the creek and in 2017 transformed the parcels into a park, which was named in honor of country music star Brad Paisley. A native of West Virginia, Paisley raised funds and donated a substantial sum to Homes for WSS for flood relief.
Homes for WSS also renovated two flood-damaged buildings in the park — one of which is now the Community Building — and donated the parkland and the structures, along with several other rental houses and the income from loans Homes for WSS had made to help get people back into houses, to WSS Main Street, thus creating a revenue stream for the Main Street organization.
“The park is a big step up from what that section of town was like right after the flood,” City Manager Lloyd Haynes remarked in a telephone interview for this article.
He explained that converting the swath of properties into parkland was really the only allowable use for the land, as it is now deemed part of White Sulphur’s floodplain.
Haynes, the city’s mayor at the time of the 2016 flood, pointed out that Tom Crabtree founded Homes for White Sulphur Springs only days after the floodwaters receded, and also spearheaded the park project.
Haynes noted that the Spa City-based team behind the Barnwood Builders television show donated the labor and materials for construction of the elegantly rustic pavilion that is the park’s centerpiece.
The pavilion and Community Building, which has a kitchen and an expansive covered deck overlooking the nearby creek, can each be reserved separately or as part of a whole-park rental for community or private events, Harper noted.
Garden clubs, church groups and civic organizations are among the groups that have held events at the park on Mill Hill Drive. Birthday parties, weddings and a recent Business after Hours event are just some of the social gatherings the park has hosted in the four years since its dedication on the first anniversary of the flood, June 23, 2017.
“The park’s calendar is virtually full through August,” Harper said. “We accept rentals on an informal basis. We want to keep the price point so it’s available to all residents of White Sulphur Springs.”
In addition, the park has served as a safe neutral custody exchange site for separated or divorced parents, and the Community Building has been used as a place for residents to fill out flood-related paperwork, Harper said. Memorial services for deceased city residents have also been conducted in the serene, tree-shaded space.
A luncheon for area military veterans that was staged at the park during the city’s annual Dandelion Festival during Memorial Day weekend this year stands out as “the best event ever,” according to Harper.
Revenue raised from park rentals and the other components of the funding stream set in motion by Homes for WSS goes toward park upkeep and other Main Street programming and projects, such as a joint endeavor with downtown merchants to install whiskey barrel planters downtown.
Harper emphasized that WSS Main Street is not a city agency. It is a nonprofit and is responsible for all of the park’s expenses, including lawn mowing and paying utility bills.
“We are looking to step up to a new role in the revitalization of White Sulphur,” Harper said. “The park is part of that. It’s open to everyone when it’s not reserved for an event, and we work to maintain certain standards to ensure it’s a place where people want to come and feel safe.”
Harper voiced pride in the strides the city’s businesses have made in the flood recovery effort, as storefronts are filling up and sales are brisk in the revitalized downtown shopping district.
“White Sulphur Springs wants to fill its niche, not mimic any other small town,” she said. “We’re developing our own identity, welcoming to residents and visitors alike. People have come from all over to see what’s going on here. It’s absolutely wonderful what’s happening in White Sulphur Springs.”
She added, “Main Street is a support for all the wonderful people making things happen here.”
Acknowledging the deep sympathy townspeople will always feel for families of the seven White Sulphur residents who perished in the flood five years ago, Harper said the optimism and spirit of renewal seen in the town today are a good sign of better times to come.
“White Sulphur Springs has grieved for years,” she said. “It’s time to look forward to the revitalization. Just keep moving forward.”