A natural treasure

With its open spaces and sparkling lake, Centennial Park has been a hit for 20 years

Centennial Park

June 11, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's 7:45 p.m. Cool breezes chase away the warmth of a late spring day and the sky is shading to lavender, with orange clouds that look lit from within.

Hundreds of people have chosen to spend this magical time of day in one of Howard County's most beautiful and inviting places: Centennial Park.

And that's not surprising. Since it opened in 1986, the 325-acre park has been wildly popular, attracting about 1.8 million visitors a year, according to Gary Arthur, director of Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks.

They come to fish, picnic, bird-watch, run, walk - with and without dogs - boat, play sports, pitch horseshoes, climb the playground and enjoy scenery not found anywhere else in the county.

And this week they will come to the park - between Centennial Lane, Route 108 and Old Annapolis Road - for the start of the 10-week Sunset Serenades Wednesday-night concert series near the dock. The Seldom Scene, playing progressive bluegrass, will open this year's series at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Signs of the park's popularity are easy to see. Pavilions where people hold gatherings are booked far in advance, and there always is activity around the 2.3-mile path around the lake. In fact, Arthur said, "We're trying to develop things to relieve Centennial."

He noted that 3,000 games a year are played on the seven athletic fields, organized by the Department of Recreation and Parks or by youth organizations such as the Columbia Baseball Association.

"We turn people away," Arthur said. "It's booked solid." And because of the heavy use, the fields are "not in the best of shape," he said.

Arthur added that he hopes one of the two multipurpose grass fields at the park will have synthetic turf by next spring.

Park officials also have started limiting fundraising events such as 5K races and walkathons to three times a month. Though supporting local charities is important, Arthur said, the events fill up the park and tax the department's staff.

Also helping to relieve Centennial are two parks that recently opened.

Meadowbrook Park, located behind Long Gate shopping center, has a 10,000-square-foot playground, the largest in the county, with more than 500 components, Arthur said. It also has tennis courts, basketball courts, three diamonds, a multipurpose field and a 2.4-mile path through "some very attractive wetlands," which should draw walkers away from Centennial, he said.

Western Regional Park in Glenwood is about halfway completed. It has two multipurpose fields, three diamonds, two basketball courts and a playground.

Still, on a recent spring night, there was room to spread out one's arms at Centennial and breathe in the cool night air.

On the playground, children were climbing the rock wall, racing down the slide and playing hide and seek. Over at Pavilion D, about 50 people were celebrating the end of the school year with a cookout.

In Pavilion B, they were doing the same thing, except their food was catered. "We decided this would be a great place," said Melissa Parlette, a room mother for fourth-graders at St. John's Parish Day School in Ellicott City. "The kids have had a great time. There's plenty of room to run. ... It's a wonderful alternative to having it in someone's house."

In a nearby field, Girl Scouts from Troop 4329 were having their formal ceremonies, moving on to the next level.

And in the midst of all this activity, Amil Kakkar was flying his kite. Kakkar, who lives in nearby Dorsey Hall, said he comes to the park "pretty much every day" with his children. On this night, he had brought a picnic of sandwiches, tea and chips to share with his two young daughters, his wife and his mother.

"It's the best park," he said. "The lake makes it the best."

Elsewhere in the park, dogs were being walked, a man was tossing a baseball to a boy, Canada geese were preening by the boat ramp, two children rolled down a grassy hill, couples strolled side by side, a red cardinal sat on a fence, and a man ran along the path, iPod buzzing in his ears.

Centennial Park has become so central to life in the county that it's hard to believe it's only 20 years old.

But Arthur, who has been with the department since 1979 and has been director since 1997, remembers well. The county began purchasing the land that is now Centennial Park in 1967, he said.

About a dozen properties were purchased, he said. Most were privately owned, though one parcel was owned by a development company. Some were vacant and others had houses. The largest was 67 acres and cost $300,000. A stream ran through the property.

The park was built in four phases and officially opened in May 1986, Arthur said. At the time, the only other county parks were Savage Park and Rockburn Branch Park. Centennial was larger, more centrally located, and it had that lake. In 1999, it was honored by the American Society of Landscape Architects as one of the top 50 public facilities in the country, Arthur said.

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