At its meeting on March 8, the Chestertown Recreation Commission voted unanimously to forward for its consideration the following site plan for improvements to Ajax Park.
In the 1970s, a downtown area adjacent to the old railroad tracks and a business named Ajax was used by youth and adults as a basketball court. It was fondly remembered by many residents, primarily though not exclusively African American.
By 2016, what had eventually become a public park was sadly neglected. The Town made some improvements by relocating playground equipment, resurfacing a one-hoop basketball court, and installing a fence. Adjacent to what had become a walking/biking trail, the park is now routinely used by families of small children and youth practicing basketball.
In 2019 the Recreation Commission proposed to remove the basketball court and install a large, badly needed, all-ages playground on the site. However, the grass-roots backlash from the community was immediate and intense. Lawn signs to “Save Ajax Pocket Park” proliferated and more than 200 people signed petitions to retain the basketball court, which occurred around the same time as the national “Black Lives Matter” movement was at its peak. Eventually, it was decided to locate the new playground at Wilmer Park and the Town proceeded to submit a funding grant proposal to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. If DNR approves the proposal and the state legislature funds it, construction should be able to begin as soon as August 2021.
DRAFTING A PLAN
In response to the expressed community demand to preserve a basketball court at Ajax, in late 2019 an ad hoc committee was formed by businessman Frank Rhodes to plan on restoring it as an important recreation facility. Members included retired Kent County High School basketball coach Darryl ‘Cleats’ Deaton; Recreation Committee members Amy Crouch, Harold Somerville, and Jim Bogden; Kent County Recreation Supervisor Jill Coleman; and community representatives Paul Tue and Doncella Wilson.
Coach Cleats passed away in August 2020. The Ajax Committee decided to name its proposed basketball court after him, honoring his vision for Ajax Park to become a significant youth development facility akin to the famous Rucker Park in New York City.
The Ajax Committee proceeded to draft an evolving series of plans, taking into account several constraints:
- Town officials made clear that public funds were not available to make improvements, so any upgrades would have to be funded privately. A community fund-raising campaign would be necessary.
- The Maryland Transportation Authority (MTA) owns the wide strip of land bordering the park: thirty feet from the centerline of the rail trail on each side. Obtaining permission to place anything permanent on this land (referred to as “the easement”) would likely require a lengthy approval process.
- Two large drains on the site cannot be relocated without major expense.
- The Recreation Commission made public promises that the existing play equipment at Ajax would not be removed until the Wilmer Park playground is installed and available for use.
- On the other hand, local officials also indicated that a portion of the town’s adjacent parking lot could be repurposed for Ajax Park.
The Recreation Commission consistently recognized the value and need for wider community input on what to include at the park. The sudden, extended onset of the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with plans to organize public meetings during 2020.
The Commission recently held three public meetings on the evolving plans:
- An in-person meeting on January 21, 2021, at the outside deck at 98 Cannon
- An online Zoom meeting on February 18, 2021
- An online Zoom meeting on March 8, 2021
At each of these meetings, members of the public expressed widely divergent views on the purpose of the park (for youth basketball, for toddler play, or for some combination of both) and the scale of the improvements. The Commission worked hard to take into account the concerns expressed by a few of the park’s neighbors who are adamantly opposed to expanding the basketball court due to worries about noise and public order while accommodating the wishes expressed by many other members of the community who want a safe and convenient basketball court for the town’s youth. The planning committee initially proposed a full high school size court but agreed to reduce its scale: a major concession to the neighbors. A smaller court is still consistent with Coach Cleats’s vision that it be a youth development facility, but it could not be used by town or regional basketball leagues. A smaller size is also less likely to be attractive to groups of adults.
The resulting plan extends the existing asphalt court from 60 feet to 80 feet long, with the same width so as not to encroach on the MTA easement. The court itself will have lines painted to make a regulation-length junior high school size court, 74 feet long, though it would still be 7 feet narrower than regulation size. A second hoop and benches would be added.
The existing toddler playground will be moved onto the easement, near the existing swing set there. Not involving the installation of permanent features, MTA approval should not be necessary. Nor does the move need to wait for the Wilmer Park playground to be finished.
Upon approval by the Town Council, the Ajax Committee will proceed to raise funds to make the improvements. The full amount of necessary funds will be in hand before construction begins.
Also, two positions on the Commission are currently open. The only requirement is to reside within Chestertown municipal boundaries. Interested people should contact their Council member.