Rock Hill aims to ‘open up a world’ for children, adult athletes with special needs

Jessica Poole, 21, right, and Justin Poole, 12, fly down a slide at Winthrop Park in Rock Hill, while J.T. Poole plays near a pole. Winthrop Park will transform into Miracle Park, an athletic and play park for people with disabilities and special needs.
Jessica Poole, 21, right, and Justin Poole, 12, fly down a slide at Winthrop Park in Rock Hill, while J.T. Poole plays near a pole. Winthrop Park will transform into Miracle Park, an athletic and play park for people with disabilities and special needs. tkimball@heraldonline.com

A new league has formed in Rock Hill.

Leaders from Winthrop University and the city of Rock Hill have teamed up with a York County foundation to build a new sports park for athletes who often can’t join a sports team: children and adults with disabilities.

Miracle Park will be among the growing roster of “world-class” sports and recreation destinations in Rock Hill, said John Gettys, Rock Hill Sports Commission chairman and mayor-elect.

“Miracle Park is really a statement of who we, as a community, aspire to be,” Gettys said. “I am just ecstatic about what this will be.”

The park will be at the current site of Winthrop Park, between Cherry Road and Eden Terrace. It will include two baseball fields, multi-purpose fields, an inclusive playground to accommodate children with disabilities as well as retail space that could be developed to employ people with disabilities.

“We have wonderful opportunities for almost all of our people,” Gettys said. “But with Miracle Park, we are going to have opportunity for all people in Rock Hill.”

Construction on the first phase of the $6 million project could begin in spring.

David Williams, president of Williams & Fudge Inc. in Rock Hill, told the Rock Hill City Council earlier this month that the park idea was launched while tossing around ideas at a baseball club.

Williams’ nephew is wheelchair bound and joined a Miracle League in Greenville, he said, which is the organization that designs the fields to be built at Rock Hill’s Miracle Park. The teams play on rubberized turf that can accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, and provides a safe surface for people with visual impairments and other disabilities.

The Miracle League Organization has nearly 300 leagues across the world. It started nearly 20 years ago as a baseball team for children with disabilities, according to themiracleleague.net.

“The first time he got to play in a Miracle League, he was just beaming,” said Williams, who is a member of the York County Disabilities Foundation. “The kids can get up there and have fun and be included.”

The foundation supports MaxAbilities, also called the York County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs, which helps disabled residents in York County find additional resources which the state of South Carolina does not provide.

Foundation members approached Winthrop University President Dan Mahony with the “pipe dream” after seeking property for the park, said Warren Norman, foundation board member and a Rock Hill business leader.

Winthrop Park is city-owned and in need of upgrades, Norman said, and the adjacent land is owned by the university.

“They latched onto this project very quickly,” Norman told the

council, which has approved allocating $550,000 to the project for improvements, including new restrooms and a parking lot.

The city will use money from accommodations taxes, which are used to encourage tourism, said foundation board member Sig Huitt.

York County Disabilities Foundation will act as the “center spoke of the wheel” to the project, Norman said, and will raise the remaining $500,000 for the first phase. The park foundation expects to complete the final phase in three to five years, he said.

The city of Rock Hill and Winthrop will lease their portions of the land to the foundation, which will build the park. Rock Hill’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism department will manage the property and provide programs.

“The city knows how to operate parks better than anyone else in South Carolina, and I would say the Southeast,” Gettys said. “To take something this important and this special and hand it off where we can’t control quality would not be the right way to go forward.”

The Winthrop Board of Trustees has approved leasing the land for the park, Norman told the council.

City leaders tout Rock Hill as a sports tourism destination, having attracted the BMX world championships last summer and events at the Giordana Velodrome, Manchester Meadows and Cherry Park, among others.

The 23-acre University Center development in Knowledge Park will include an indoor sports arena to attract at least 172,000 tourists and is expected to generate about $10 million in revenue.

Miracle Park could attract tournaments and additional tourism tax revenue, Norman said.

Another park draw is retail space, which could include a coffee shop or other stores that could employ people with disabilities, Norman said. The foundation studied a similar concept in Wilmington, N.C.

In addition, the playground will include equipment and play surfaces for children in wheelchairs and with mobility challenges and includes sensory elements for children with developmental disabilities.

“This will be for our kids, this will be for our adults, this will be for our community, but then we can bring people in to come to Miracle Park and really make it a tourist destination,” Williams said.

Mary Poole, executive director of MaxAbilities, said the park will give children with disabilities the opportunity to travel to games.

“I think it opens up a world for kids that they haven’t been able to participate in,” Poole said. “It’s very forward thinking.”

Gettys said the project “sets a benchmark” for the college, the city and the foundation.

Winthrop students obtaining degrees related to disabilities and athletic programs will use the park for educational purposes, Huitt said.

Tracy Kimball: tkimball@heraldonline.com