City board delays vote on use of mini-park

By Tom Joyce -

Mount Airy officials delayed action Thursday night on a proposal that would let a downtown group decide who uses a city-owned mini-park, after concerns arose about what activities might result.

“Is it open to someone who wants to hold a Black Lives Matter rally?” Commissioner Jon Cawley asked during a meeting of the city council when the issue was discussed at length. “Is it going to be open to street preachers?”

The proposal before the board of commissioners Thursday night called for Mount Airy Downtown Inc., also known as MAD, to serve as a clearinghouse for various organizations wanting to use Carlos Jones Blue Ridge Park. That facility was constructed last year at the corner of North Main Street and West Oak Street downtown, with a gazebo as its most prominent feature.

When launching the mini-park, city officials said it would be a gathering spot for the general public, as well as available for community activities or small musical performances utilizing the gazebo.

Since it opened, the city government has received several requests for the use of the park, which recently sparked the proposal to streamline that process by having Mount Airy Downtown Inc. field those requests and schedule activities at the site. This would prevent the commissioners from having to act on each one.

Board concerns

However, members of the board of commissioners came to Thursday’s meeting armed with numerous questions about how that could play out over time.

Cawley suggested that the mini-park be used strictly for entertainment purposes rather than for political or similar events. “We would save ourselves some headaches,” he reasoned.

Another board member questioned whether such a restriction would be legal.

“I don’t know that we could limit it because of freedom of speech,” said Commissioner Steve Yokeley, who also is serving as interim mayor and campaigning for that position in this fall’s city election.

Cawley explained that he was just interested in trying to prevent any potential problems regarding use of the mini-park.

“I don’t want this to become another issue that is an issue because we didn’t think it through as well as we could have.”

A memorandum of understanding the board declined to approve Thursday night in its present form states that MAD would have “exclusive authority” to schedule events at Carlos Jones Blue Ridge Park. It says special events are important to the vitality of downtown Mount Airy, and the agreement would allow MAD the ability to plan those benefiting the community as a whole.

“We haven’t had any crazy requests,” Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison, who is part of MAD, said of the mini-park situation so far.

“At a minimum, MAD will maintain and post a monthly calendar showing scheduled, appropriate activities for Carlos Jones Blue Ridge Park and manage these in such a way that it does not negatively impact private parking areas or businesses,” the memorandum of understanding states.

It says MAD would be expected to work with other parties in a collaborative manner and be responsible for ensuring that all permits, waivers and insurance coverage (if needed) are in place for events. The organization, which is not seeking to directly benefit monetarily or collect fees to use the mini-park, also would be responsible for notifying city police when an event requires special attention.

Yet the commissioners were wary of what might occur under this arrangement, despite a provision that would allow it to be re-evaluated after a year or ended by either the city government or MAD before then if the situation proved unsatisfactory.

Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said she was concerned about who will actually be making the booking decisions for the mini-park, which is not specified in the memorandum of understanding.

Brinkley indicated that she wanted to avoid conflicts of interest or other problems from certain segments of the community having priority for the facility’s use over others.

“If you’ve got a certain group of people (involved), there could be controversy.”

Discussion during the meeting revealed that such decisions would be made by a promotions committee of MAD. The Downtown Business Association, a separate promotional organization, now votes on which special events are held in the central business district as a whole.

City Parks and Recreation Director Catrina Alexander, who presented the proposal Thursday night for MAD to head the process, said the intent would be to schedule activities that are “positive for the community.”

Morrison suggested that those which are of an arts and cultural nature be included rather than Cawley’s idea to limit that to entertainment events.

Burden on city

Despite this intent, Commissioner Jim Armbrister was not convinced about the plan overall.

“I would discourage putting that in the hands of any specific group at this time,” Armbrister said of the plan involving MAD.

He favored having the city manager approve requests for the mini-park, which still would prevent the board from having to act on each one.

“I think our city manager has enough duties,” Yokeley responded.

“I’m very much in favor of MAD handling it,” he added of the scheduling responsibilities.

Cawley also said he wanted the matter out of the city government’s hands as much as possible, including not placing extra burdens on the police and fire departments.

After further discussion failed to produce a consensus, the commissioners decided in a 3-2 vote to tweak the proposal now on the table to clear up concerns raised and reconsider it at their next meeting on Oct. 1.

“I would like to see a little more clarity,” Brinkley agreed.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693.

By Tom Joyce

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