ES parks commission, citizens address trails projects

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission faced a packed house on Monday night, with citizens filling The Auditorium to discuss ongoing trails projects.

Many citizens addressed the commission’s recent decision to enter into a cooperative agreement with the Walton Family Foundation to build new downhill mountain bike courses at Lake Leatherwood City Park, starting with Damon Henke.

“We’re really more than just a small community,” Henke said. “We’re a regional tourism destination. I think it’s overly critical that we keep up with the neighboring communities, because what you’re finding is a lot of people traveling to this region of the country to participate in the interconnected trails system.”

While he supports the downhill mountain bike trails, Henke said, the trail system as a whole is what matters most.

“I feel we’re very focused on that as an individual piece when we need to look at the overall trail connectivity,” Henke said.

Faith Shah said her concern is safety, saying she’s kept up with the downhill trails as they have been built. There’s one section of the trail, Shah said, that seems especially dangerous to mountain bikers.

“If someone misses it, they’re doing a 20-foot drop right onto the gully with sharp rocks,” Shah said. “I don’t want anybody to get hurt.”

Chairman Bill Featherstone said that particular part of the trail was a mistake and is being fixed, and Shah said the error is an indication of the project’s speed.

“Some of us are getting vilified for criticizing this downhill gravity thing,” Shah said. “This, I think, should have been done in a slower method and safer method.”

Tracey Johnson, who tends bar at Chelsea’s, said she interacts with tourists regularly. Many of the town’s visitors, Johnson said, are interested in outdoor recreation.

“I’m excited about change. It’s important for us to be progressive in the trail system,” Johnson said. “It will make it more comfortable for someone like me who’s not particularly familiar with the forests around here … to go on these trails.”

Jacqueline Wolven spoke about the importance of accepting gifts, saying the downhill trails are a gift from the Walton Family Foundation.

“Refusing a gift makes it unlikely you’ll get any more,” Wolven said. “It’s no surprise to anyone that I don’t particularly love the givers. I am not a fan of [Walmart], but I am a fan of those boys … who want to give the gift of fun and adventure and exploration to region that needs it.”

Megan Kirk remembered when she and her family moved near Black Bass Dam years ago. Back then, Kirk said, the area was littered with empty alcohol bottles, condoms and even syringes. The trails coming in changed all that, she said.

“The things those people left behind began to disappear. You began to have families and kids and hikers and dogs on leashes and people driving by with kayaks and canoes,” Kirk said. “It was completely transformed.”

Mike Shah said he supports trails but is skeptical about the downhill project.

“I want to know what the plan is. I want to know where the money comes from and what’s attached to the money,” Shah said.

Diane Murphy described how tourism changes, saying Eureka Springs needs to stay relevant with visitors while retaining its identity.

“The trails fit with both. The trails are the thing that’s inclusive and embraces outdoor recreation and the appreciation of natural resources,” Murphy said. “It’s the essence of who we are. I hope we continue to build on that.”

Harrie Farrow called herself an avid trails user but said she’s worried the downhill trails.

“Yes, it’s a gift, but I’m not someone who easily goes, ‘OK, let’s do this without due diligence,’ ” Farrow said. “I feel like … you weren’t being very careful at all. I’m just very concerned about that.”

Featherstone agreed that the project has happened quickly and said the trails that have been built so far are as high-quality as they come. The trail builders, Featherstone said, are some of the best.

“They’ve got all kinds of machines in the area, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a nick on a rock or a piece of moss that has been touched,” Featherstone said. “It’s just very, very impressive how well they’re building these trails and the care they’re showing and the natural way they’re going about it.”

The most important thing for any project, Featherstone said, is open communication. He recalled speaking to the Eureka Springs City Council on Feb. 12 about a trail between Harmon Park and Clear Spring School, saying the council members “hammered” him about why the grant for the trail was redirected for a fitness trail at the community center.

“I was trying to think of the last time I had a conversation with any of them, a text message, a phone call, an email about anything in regard to what we were talking about,” he said, “and it wasn’t that I couldn’t think of the last time. There were no times. They had never called me to ask me how I felt about anything, yet they had formed opinions and they were publicly expressing those opinions based on something less than the facts.”

The parks commission has been completely transparent, Featherstone said.

“We’re not hiding anything at this table. We can’t hide anything,” he said. “We’re a public entity. We have nothing to hide.”

Parks director Justin Huss agreed.

“I’ve been a public servant for 10 years now. Not only are there ethical standards I hold very high, there’s pretty severe penalties for not following those laws,” Huss said. “I’m pretty partial to my wife and kids and house, and I’m not doing anything that’s going to deviate from those things.”

He continued, “I assure you, any agreement or contract I negotiate has been vetted by attorneys as this agreement has and continues to be. I take all this very seriously. I take my ethical and professional responsibilities very seriously.”

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