By Jason Banks
(Blue Ridge) – At a city council meeting late last year, the council voted to allow Mayor Donna Whitener to proceed with revamping the downtown city park. Whitener stressed the opportunity of grant money to pay for the project, and the council agreed.
The project was to include two grants: one horticulture grant and another from the Blue Ridge Kiwanis Club.
Citizens and council members voiced concerns regarding the timing and details of the project, particularly the location of the bbq pit, playground, and iconic bear statues; but the mayor assured meeting attendees that failure to act quickly could result in the loss of the grants, including possibly $80-100,000 from Kiwanis for playground equipment.
Fast forward eight months and it’s painfully obvious that the initial presentation for the city park project took a horrible wrong turn somewhere, and council members (along with many residents) aren’t happy with it. Make no mistake, everyone loves the good work Tree City did with the trees, shrubs, flowers and sod, but something is missing. Where’s the playground?
At the city council meeting June 14, the council voted unanimously to turn control of the park project over to council member Angie Arp. According to Arp, that decision came as a result of the council’s frustration regarding the project’s lack of completion, deviation from what was originally agreed upon, and an extreme lack of communication by Mayor Whitener.
“In late October or early November we agreed to let Donna proceed with the park, but we were expecting playground equipment all through the park,” Arp explained. “In late February or early March the plants were ordered and we approved the landscaping and our big concern was how long was this going to take?”
Whitener told the council that the park should be complete by July. The problem with that answer, however, was something council was completely unaware of.
“We didn’t even have the money from the Kiwanis grant yet!” Arp exclaimed in frustration.
In fact, the grant hadn’t even been applied for in March. The application wasn’t completed until April, and is still pending approval.
“We didn’t realize she didn’t have the money for the playground or we would’ve never – never – approved this,” Arp told the Focus. “We would’ve planned differently. We assumed she had all of her ducks in a row.”
Not only is there frustration surrounding the fact that the Kiwanis grant wasn’t even submitted prior to the removal of the playground equipment – and the fact that the grant now still hasn’t been approved – but the fact that the grant itself is only a fraction of what was originally discussed.
“The grant is only for $25,000,” Arp said. “We were expecting to buy $100,000 worth of new equipment with grant money – free money – and now we don’t even know if we’re going to get the $25,000. We won’t know until later this month, and if it is approved we still won’t get it until September or October!”
Arp explained that at this point, the council’s hands are tied and they’re essentially stuck playing the waiting game, while the children who used to frequent the park are stuck playing.. well, nothing.
“At this point, it is what it is,” explained Arp. “I mean how ridiculous do we look? We were led to believe all along that the money was going to be there and that this was going to be done by July. We made the decision to move forward with this all the way back in November of last year. Of course we’d never refuse free money, but is it worth it?”
Locals want to know where the playground is going to be, and where’s the new equipment everyone was promised?
According to Arp, it has never been the council’s intent to make the playground smaller, and they’re working to avoid that. Arp has a quote for $95,000 to complete the project with new playground equipment throughout the entire area. In order for that to happen, the city may have to use taxpayer funds. Arp said she’s not even sure if the city will be able to choose the equipment or company, depending upon grant restrictions. At the end of the day one thing is certain: no one seems to know for sure when the playground will be coming back or where it will be.