Walton Family Foundation gives Parks a boost

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Chair Bill Featherstone said Nov. 21 that Parks’ staff has been “building out” the Master Plan for Trails since city council adopted it in July 2014. Recently completed was a half-mile bluff line trail alongside Black Bass Lake, while other connecting trails around town are planned.

Featherstone recounted that in their search for a director almost two years ago, they purposefully intended to find someone who would force commissioners to think creatively, someone who would “make us uncomfortable,” and in finding Justin Huss they succeeded. He added that something arose unexpectedly which was not part of the plan but nevertheless was “a very intriguing addition.”

Huss began by reminding commissioners that at the Oct. 17 meeting they authorized him to negotiate trails’ projects, “and that’s what I’ve been doing.” He said developing the in-town trails has been their focus since spring, and Adam Biossat of the Trails Committee had been busy investigating trail expansions, discovering obstacles such as establishing property lines, settling easement questions, and other practical complications.

The intention was to gather enough information for the Walton Family Foundation for help completing the urban trail system so residents could walk to the grocery store on a trail, or ride a bicycle to downtown or Harmon Park. He said the Foundation had been helping with administrative assistance, but in September the topic arose about expanding downhill trails at Lake Leatherwood City Park.

Mountain bikers have considered the downhill course at LLCP a special niche no one else has, so the Foundation experts offered to build several new downhill courses with a shuttle back to the top of the hill, and they wanted to start right away.

Since those discussions, the Foundation moved forward spending an unspecified amount for two ten-acre plots atop the hill near Miner’s Rock in the northwest corner of the park. Huss said those purchases had closed earlier that day. The intention is to use a lodge already there and build a parking lot, helipad, and other amenities on five acres and eventually deed the other 15 over to Parks.

Huss said Parks could build cabins and campsites on the new property as a revenue source to help pay for extra maintenance.

He noted one downhill course with a 456-ft. elevation drop has already been flagged where nothing else was planned. He emphasized that hand-in-hand with the development of downhill courses was maintaining integrity of the park’s environmental aspects. He also pointed out this is a cooperative project, not a grant. Parks has committed $50,000 toward development of the area around Miner’s Rock and the Foundation will do everything else.

Part of the investment will be to consolidate existing resource inventory already scouted out by visiting biology students and plant experts, which Parks planned to accomplish anyway. Huss distributed a map showing locations of the glades in LLCP, and commissioner Steven Foster explained a glade is a unique habitat of mostly herbaceous rather than woody plants. These ancient sites might be 380 million years old, or from the time flowering plants first evolved, and a home to rare species. Theo Whitsell, field botanist for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, already toured the park to further establish an inventory of plants.

Huss explained the agreement he negotiated stated all work at the site would go through him. He held his ground during back-and-forth negotiations, and the expectations that Parks insisted on were written into the agreement. Necessary safety measures, including the helipad, are in the agreement.

Featherstone added downhill racing is a hot trend in the biking world, and the new downhill courses will give Eureka Springs something different, “and that’s what brings them here,” referring to a younger demographic who might not visit Eureka Springs otherwise. He added that Parks put up only a small investment for a project of this scope.

Commissioner Fergie Stewart said the project augments the array of attractions in town. He said he has spoken with key individuals and found “the business community is very excited about this, the executive staff of Eureka is excited, members of city council are excited,” and urged Huss to take it slow and progress carefully.

He went on to observe the project adds to the responsibilities of Huss and his staff, “but there are hundreds of people out here helping,” and Stewart wanted “to make sure taxpayers get all the money they can get out of this. This is for the taxpayers. This is for the locals, and this is going to greatly increase opportunities for everybody in Eureka Springs.”

Commissioner Ruth Hager disagreed with one of Stewart’s points. “I think we already have slowed down. I think we need to speed it up. Eureka Springs always does things too slowly. I’m ready to see it,” she said.

Huss said there must be faith in the process from both sides. The Walton Family Foundation just purchased two properties as their part of showing faith, so the commission must act in kind.

Foster had a different view of the project than Stewart. “For me personally, I don’t care about tourism and I don’t care about tourists,” he said. “As a Parks commissioner, my interest is in the biological and environmental integrity of Lake Leatherwood City Park and its natural history assets and human enjoyment for multi-purpose use. I’m not a bike rider, so I could care less about a downhill trail or an uphill trail.”

He did vouch for Aaron Rodgers, the person whose company Rock Solid Trails will build the trails. Foster said Rodgers focuses on low habitat impact and has a botany degree. He added that commissioners had already authorized funds to hire Whitsell to inventory plants in the park, and, so far, he has found four rare species on the east side of the lake. Foster, however, saw no significant environmental impact in the area flagged for the downhill course, which would be on the west side.

Foster said there were experts available to help a committee maintain integrity of the area around Miner’s Rock, and suggested the project could be a catalyst for developing the natural inventory they wanted and creating natural history awareness which could lead to educational programs.

He also pointed out that Eureka Springs is ahead of the game by performing such an inventory before the space is developed. “This is not just about tourism. It’s about developing the park in a responsible way,” he said adding that the eastern side of the lake could be reserved for restoration to its natural habitat and set aside for hikers-only trails.

Commissioners went through the agreement for last minute changes and agreed to hold a public meeting on the project on Tuesday, Dec. 5, at 6 p.m., in the Auditorium.

Hager moved to approve the agreement as amended, and vote to approve her motion was unanimous.

Next regular meeting will be Tuesday, Dec. 19, at 6 p.m., in the Auditorium lobby.

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