Park Closure Spurs Community Response

The walking trail is gone. The basketball court has been pulled out. The playground equipment, likewise, has gone the way of all flesh. All that remains of the former Blair Community Park on 99 Road is the green grass and rolling landscape. After 27 years, with the stroke of a pen, it was gone.

Monday night, residents of the Blair community filled the County Council meeting chambers to let Council know they wanted it back. But not necessarily on the County’s dime.

Ernest Yarborough, speaking on behalf of a community group calling themselves the Shelton Thompson Foundation, told Council that, instead of rehashing the events that led to the dismantling of the park, his group only wants the County’s help in helping themselves. Yarborough did, however, offer a brief rundown of his perspective of the chain of events leading up to the closure of the park.

“One: The County was paying $1,200 a year to lease this family’s land, not $12,000 as reported in the paper (a Fairfield County media outlet not related to or affiliated with The Voice),” Yarborough said. “Two: There were no negotiations with the landowner to keep this park in place before this lease expired. I understand there were some landowner calls, but these were not negotiations. Three: The real losers of this dispute are the citizens of this community and the citizens of Fairfield County. This park was in a strategic location that made it easy to be used by children and adults. This park was constantly in use, and I’m told it was very well maintained by this body. This park was a small investment for the well-being of the citizens of this county.”

Prior to the meeting, Yarborough told The Voice that the goal of the Foundation was to raise enough money to reestablish a park on the property, property owned by Nancy T. Young and administered by her daughter, Felicia Trower via power of attorney. Yarborough said the group hopes to raise private money, then request matching funds from the County at a later date. Yarborough said the location could serve the community not only as a park, but as a site for after-school programs as well.

“I don’t have time to point fingers or to make blame or to sort out the truth from the fiction as to why this park was dismantled,” Yarborough said Monday night. “But I will tell you that the day the workers of this county came out to Road 99 and dismantled this park, they weren’t just dismantling monkey bars and rocking ducks, they were destroying a history of a people in this community. This park was named for Miss Eunice Shelton Thompson. Miss Thompson taught school for 35 years. She raised seven children under the most difficult of economic circumstances. She was Sunday school superintendent for many years in the community. She was a mentor to the young and the old alike. The name of this park was not just a name. It was a name that emanated hope and pride for a lot of people. For this body to take that away from the people without a single public discussion is not right, regardless of why the park was dismantled. The people here tonight have a right to be disappointed, but instead of coming here to fuss, these people appear tonight to ask you to give them a chance to help themselves.”

Yarborough asked Council to put on hold any decision concerning leasing other land for a new park until the Foundation could come back with a proposal.

Fairfield County officially announced the closing of the Blair Community Park at 544 99 Road Nov. 6, citing in a press release an inability of the County to come to terms with Trower on a new lease. Trower later claimed that the County never made a legitimate effort to reach such an agreement (see the Nov. 30 edition of The Voice). Following Yarborough’s presentation, Phil Hinely, County Administrator; Davis Anderson, Deputy Administrator; and Sheila Pickett, Director of Procurement reviewed for Council the process leading up to the closure of the park.

Pickett said the negotiations actually began in 2009, when Trower met with Anderson and Lori Schaeffer, the County’s Recreation Department Director, to discuss the potential purchase of the property.

“She (Trower) wanted $200,000 to $300,000 for the property of 2 acres of land,” Pickett said. “I was not in attendance at that meeting, but that was the conclusion of the meeting.”

Anderson confirmed Pickett’s account of the meeting, adding that he explained to Trower during that meeting that the County could only pay tax value or fair market value for property. The issue stalled there until September of this year when Pickett said she again contacted Trower to negotiate a new lease. Pickett said Trower asked for $6,000 a year to renew the lease, which was out of the question for the County.

Trower told The Voice two weeks ago that she never asked for more than $100,000 for the land, which she said was not a serious offer, and that the $6,000 a year was only a starting point for negotiations. Trower also said she had never met with nor ever heard of Lori Schaeffer.

Hinely said Council’s own policies prohibited them from cutting such a deal, and Monday night he reviewed for Council a County resolution passed April 13, 2009, which, he said, has been steering the County out of expensive leases.

“If the County does not own the property or does not have a long-term lease for a nominal amount of money, not an exorbitant amount of money, we have been getting out of those leases or purchasing those properties,” Hinely said. “As they come up for renewal, we’ve been having those discussions with property owners. So we have had discussions with property owners, regardless of what they may or may not say.”

Councilman Mikel Trapp (District 3), who represents the Blair area, said he was working to make sure the community had a park in the near future.

“I am in contact with two landowners in the area and they are talking very favorably about allowing the County to purchase their property,” Trapp said. “One of them is out of town until the first of the year. When he gets back, I will talk to him. And the other one is talking it over with family members. But a park will be relocated in the Blair area. It may not be in that precise location, but we will have a park out there.”

After Yarborough was seated, another member of the Blair community, 9-year-old Precious Hill, told Council she misses her park.

“This park means a lot to me,” Hill said. “Me and my family and friends, we used to always play there. We used to love to play there all the time, and then it got destroyed so we couldn’t play there no more. We used to have a lot of fun at cookouts and stuff.”

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