I think of Cooper River Park as South Jersey's version of Fairmount Park, along the Schuylkill.

"It's a park everyone feels very strongly about," observes landscape architect Joseph R. Cairone, who spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Camden County Boathouse on North Park Drive last week.

The audience had come to hear about his firm's $23 million "Vision Plan," the first phase of which will be voted on by Camden County freeholders Thursday.

The project will enhance the heart of the park: the postcard-esque area that offers great Philly skyline views and features the renowned, 1.3-mile rowing course between Cuthbert Boulevard in Cherry Hill and Route 130 in Pennsauken.

This is where you'll find the facilities, monuments, and events that shape the park's personality, and where hundreds, if not thousands, row, run, and relax on warm weekends.

Newspaper columnists have been sighted there as well.

"It's the crown jewel of our park system," Freeholder Jeff Nash says.

But the 346-acre park, which the federal Works Progress Administration carved from marshland in the 1930s, also has issues.

A separate, $5 million dredging project is necessary to preserve the river's revenue-generating role as a rowing and regatta capital.

The Cooper's banks need better buffers (basically, strategic clusters of vegetation) to reduce erosion, stem flooding, and boost water quality.

Smarter signage, brighter lights, and, most of all, new walkways, stairs, and boardwalks are required to draw those who cycle or walk the park's busy perimeter closer to the river.

The vision crafted by the Philadelphia landscape architecture firm Cairone & Kaupp is both sophisticated and practical. Deeply respectful of the park and the public, it's a beautiful piece of work.

But the county seems focused on a single section of the park, which troubles community activist Tom Knoche of Westmont, and some Camden residents as well.

I walk with Knoche, who has worked for decades to create a greenway along the Cooper in Camden, through what the county informally calls Gateway Park. It's a lush expanse of grass and trees west of Route 130 and on the south side of the Admiral Wilson Boulevard.

This park was built in 2000, after former Gov. Christie Whitman's famous cleanup of the then-seedy boulevard in advance of her Republican Party's convention in Philadelphia. The area looks lovely now, but it's largely inaccessible and pretty much deserted.

"The park east of 130 gets a lot of attention. But it's been 12 years since [the Camden portion] was built, and there's no vision plan for it," Knoche says. "Our thought is, if you spend a buck east of 130, spend a buck west of 130. It's a matter of equity."

Frank Moran, Camden City Council president and county parks director, points out that the county will spend $2.5 million to rebuild Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden.

Control of Gateway Park is to be transferred from the Delaware River Port Authority to the county - "hopefully, in the next couple of years," Nash says.

Given that the DRPA built the park in less than a year, his timetable for this long-awaited handoff strikes me as a bit . . . leisurely.

The pace brings to mind the fate of an adjacent area, a former Camden city park. It was submerged after a dike was breached during a famous hurricane named Agnes, in 1972.

You may have noticed the onetime beauty spot along Kaighn Avenue, just south of the Pub.

It's where a brick picnic pavilion has been slowly sinking into the water for 40 years.

The county showed great foresight when it built the park system nearly 80 years ago. The Vision Plan is also wise. But the county must expand its vision to include Gateway Park.

Kevin Riordan:

Two views of Cooper River Park's future. www.philly.com/visionEndText