Abandoned quarry in Winston-Salem is pool of hope

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The old Vulcan quarry in Winston-Salem, N.C. The City of Winston-Salem, which owns the quarry, recently deeded the property to the City's division of recreation and parks. (ANDREW DYE/Journal)

Editor’s note: Scott Sexton is a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal.

At first and second blush, William Royston, the superintendent of the Winston-Salem Recreation and Parks Department, appears to be a laid-back, taciturn sort. His voice is low, and his demeanor calm.

Get him near the face of a 130-foot bluff overlooking an abandoned rock quarry that the city hopes to convert into a park, and Royston becomes another guy entirely.

His arms wave, his face becomes animated and the timbre of his voice rises as he begins to list the possibilities if voters approve $30.85 million in bonds to several city parks and create a new one on 220 gorgeous acres just off Reynolds Park Road.

And why wouldn’t he? Nature – and the twists of fortune — has provided an unparalleled opportunity in the cool, crystal clear water, the sheer granite rock cliffs and the acres of rolling and lush vegetation.

“It’d just be a shame to let this all go to waste,” Royston said while sitting in the middle of the quarry lake on a johnboat Friday morning.

Seize the opportunity

Election Day is just nine short weeks away, but various factions in city government have been drawing up plans for $139.2 million in five different bond proposals for months, if not years.

Most of the five, such as the $41.35 million being sought for transportation or the $31 million being asked for public safety, are self-explanatory.

If approved, the transportation money would be spent on repaving and widening streets, sidewalks and extending greenways. The public safety bonds would be spent building three district stations for police and overhauling the headquarters on Cherry Street.

Others, such as $25 million for economic development and the $10 million for housing, are more difficult to envision. Economic development generally means infrastructure, site development and incentives for businesses that have become accustomed to not paying for these things themselves. And housing could mean anything.

The park plan, though, is plenty straightforward and for my money, the most intriguing of the five. Roads and cops are necessary, and every city has to have them. But parks set us apart from other places and make the city a more desirable place to live.

There are 19 projects within that $30.85 million; big ticket items include $5 million for Happy Hill Park, $4 million to build a new marina and other upgrades at Salem Lake, and $4 million for a water park and other items at Winston Lake.

Those are cool, but the really sexy thing is what $4 million could do at the yet-to-be-named Quarry Park. Plans for Phase I include an elevated boardwalk through the trees leading from the top to the water’s edge, picnic shelters and an amphitheater with a striking view of the downtown,

That’s what got Royston rolling when I interrupted his Friday to get a look at the place. The best part is that the city already owns the land, and any money approved by voters can be spent directly and immediately on facilities.

“Every kid in the neighborhood with a fishing pole knows about it,” he said. “But there are a whole lot of people who’ve lived (in Winston-Salem) all their lives and have no idea this is here.”

Cool place for a park

Lomark “Lo” Barren, a city parks employee for 26 years, is one of those. Barren is an outdoorsman, a hunter and fisherman for as long as he can remember.

“Everybody knows a redneck,” Royston said with a grin. “And Lo is mine.”

But even Barren didn’t know about the abandoned quarry until he started working for recreation and parks. Friday, he functioned as tour guide, historian and boat pilot for an exceedingly pleasant (and too short) visit.

Even though we were less than 2 miles from the edge of downtown, the only signs of other people were the sounds of heavy equipment moving mulch around at the place where the city stores excess.

Vulcan Materials co. used the quarry to pull granite from an ever-deepening pit from the 1930s through the ’80s.

“Some of this rock was used on I-40 and Salem College,” Barren said. “There’s mining equipment down at the bottom. They left one weekend, and when they came back, water had covered it up. They couldn’t get it out.”

Steering a johnboat along the edges of the lake is when he and Royston really warmed to the task of explaining what’s within reach. The water is so clear that you can see 10, 15 feet to the bottom. Large brim, carp and bass followed in the boat’s wake. Overhead, large birds soared on air currents.

When the quarry was no longer productive, the city got ownership of the land. At one point, plans were drawn for condos and other development. But thankfully those fell through, so the many, rather than just a few, might have a chance to enjoy the place.

“It’ll be nice when everybody can see this,” Barren said.

First, though, voters have to approve the $30.85 million in bonds. If that happens, Royston said, workers can have parts of it ready for visitors as soon as next summer. It’d be simple to connect it to the greenway and Salem Lake nearby.

“I’ve been with the city for nine years,” Royston said. “Lo brought me out here two weeks after I was hired. I just thought ‘what a cool place for a park.’ And I’ve been thinking that ever since.”

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