Parks explains why it wants to go downhill

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Seven citizens showed up for the Dec. 19 Parks Commission meeting with plenty to say, and the meeting turned into more of an open conversation than a commission meeting. The topic was primarily the new downhill bicycle trails project at Lake Leatherwood City Park, which led to other comments about Parks’ commitment to building trails in the community.

Commissioners turned their agenda upside down to allow those with comments to speak first, and the commentary took up the first hour of the meeting. Doug Stowe was first, and said he admired work done by the Parks Department to take care of the parks, but wanted clarity about who decides where trails are built. He wanted attention paid to trails a father and daughter could ride on in addition to the new downhill trails.

Pat Costner focused on the process involved in making the decision for the trails. Was the commission involved in the process or was Director Justin Huss the designee to do the negotiations? Where was a copy of the final agreement and was it available to the public?

After Costner’s three minutes ended, Pat Matsukis told the commission citizens voted for the LLCP tax for locals so there would programs for kids. She said she was happy if tourists enjoy city parks, but that was not the reason residents passed the tax. She said she did not want more cabins at LLCP, she wanted residents to be considered first, and she was not sure new trails were a good idea. She insisted government must be inclusive of all the people, and citizens can take back the tax.

Faith Shah commented she was a walker, not a biker, because she hurt herself biking. She expected some of the high-speed bikers would also become walkers. Her interest in LLCP is native plants, and she wants assurance the park would remain a place everyone could enjoy. She said it was great to attract visitors, but not as a detriment to other uses. She signed up to be on the Trails Committee because of her interest in flora, and said she hoped there would be pedestrian-only trails designated at the park.

Michael Shah said he had been a mountain biker, and appreciated the expert quality of the trail-building for the new trails, but also commented the helipad at the top of the hill would be important because there will be accidents. His other point was not all young people are bikers. Some go to the park for the animals, birds and flora. He said it would smart to include everyone in planning these big projects.

Glenda Moore observed the park is used by people from all over the county, and she offered ideas for how to generate more revenue. She was not against mountain biking trails but wanted the glades, springs and animal and plant life considered in the planning process.

Sal Wilson said he had not been not aware of the project, which involves the Walton Family Foundation (WFF), until it was a done deal. He stated it was a great concept, but it seemed like Parks was asking for forgiveness after the fact rather than permission. Wilson maintained the park should be about the citizens, and the commission must wade through the drama of the process. He agreed the concept was exciting, but “we are not Bentonville and we can establish our own identity.” He said change is scary, and the public needs good communication from the commission.

Since Costner had not finished her questions, Chair Bill Featherstone allowed her to continue. Costner wanted copies of the contract with the WFF. She also challenged the commission as to whether it had done adequate environmental assessments before the project began, and wondered where those documents were. She asked if identifying plants was an adequate assessment. She also asked, “Have you evaluated this project and going forward is this the wisest choice?” Both Huss and commissioner Steven Foster immediately answered, “Absolutely.”

Costner then stated, “You have created controversy and divided the community. You have sacrificed trust.”

On her second go-around, Matsukis asked why the commission thought the downhill project was a good idea. Stowe responded that Parks staff and volunteers have been building trails and promoting trail-building for years, so it should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention. Trails have been part of their mission, and he could easily see why Parks would feel supported in proceeding with the project. Michael Shah added if folks had known more along the way, it would have been better for everyone.

Featherstone responded by noting the new trails will be contained in a small percentage of the park, and the rest of the park would not be neglected. He said the commission had authorized spending funds for an environmental inventory, but the new project heightened awareness of the importance of continued assessment of the assets at LLCP.

The area where the new trails will be built is not suitable for much else, and he said Parks had been offered a great opportunity. He was confident the public would be okay with the result. He maintained Parks has not tried to hide anything, but some people just do not want to know the truth.

Commissioner Ruth Hager answered comments about how quickly the project came about by saying there might not have been many days in the process, but there were untold hours spent in conversation and negotiations.

Huss said he had heard more commentary from the public at this meeting than he had heard in his 19 months as director. He commented some of the points offered were things Parks has been talking about for months and months. He also accepted the comments as positive engagement because everyone was passionate about the park.

He also stated some of the improvements at LLCP, such as new cabins and campsites, were designed to bring in more revenue so the park would become self-sustaining. “It takes money to accomplish anything,” Huss remarked, noting Parks had a long way to go to reach its goals but it was making good progress with good intentions.

Stowe observed there had been great controversy when the ball fields were being proposed at LLCP, but said it was a delight for him to watch his daughter play soccer there.

There was also an agenda

In chairman’s comments, Featherstone pointed to the undeniable connection Eureka Springs has with tourism, and said he could not remember the last time the town did something this bold to attract new visitors. The downhill trails will bring in a younger set of visitors because the sport is gaining popularity, and Northwest Arkansas, Eureka Springs in particular, will become a biking destination.

He also mentioned the in-town trails being developed so folks can get to the grocery store or downtown on foot or on bike.

Director’s report

Huss announced more than 200 participants took part in November’s National Interscholastic Cycling Association state championship races at LLCP. The race grew from 126 racers in 2016. There was also a canine training event at the park, and Fire Chief Nick Samac hoped to make the training an annual event. Six states were represented.

Huss said there have been discussions about using the memorial donations for Montana Widener for a water feature at the Dog Park.

He also stated there have been at least 33,900 views from all over the world of a video posted on the Oz Trails website featuring the existing downhill trail at LLCP.

Huss mentioned the variety of assets at LLCP make eco-tourism a possibility.

In other business

  • Foster suggested Parks establish a new committee of six members to work with Huss on developing the new downhill trails. Commissioners voted unanimously to set up the committee, although membership was not established.
  • Foster announced he was working on a list of Rules and Policies for the parks that he would present at the Jan. 16 meeting.
  • Commissioners voted to give the four full-time staff a one percent one-time year-end bonus.

Next meeting will be Tuesday, Jan. 16, at 6 p.m.

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