Volunteer told to stop work at Don Davidson Park

Work on the Strong amphitheater being built at Don Davidson Park has been stopped.

Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections every year or two, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in. And countless volunteers have and continually make that commitment for the betterment of Fayetteville and Lincoln County, including its parks.

Volunteers have helped build parks and recreation facilities across the state and this impact led to the adoption of the Tennessee Recreational Use Statue that sets out safeguards for volunteers as well as communities.

After donating thousands of volunteer hours to the City of Fayetteville’s Parks and Recreation Department during the past 10 years, Kevin Freeman, however, has been told not to do any more work at Don Davidson Park until further notice due to liability concerns. Elected officials apparently were not aware of all the improvements made to the park in the past several months nor who gave permission for this work to be done although two aldermen sit on the Parks and Recreation committee. This was followed by concerns within the community that the park was being closed and that some of the recent projects would be dismantled. 

In August, an 18-hole disc golf course was completed at this park whose beginnings were made possible years ago by the Lions Club. The disc golf project began in 2019, in cooperation with Fayetteville Parks and Recreation and a group of volunteers. Then in September, Parks and Recreation sponsored “Get Friendly with Don Davidson Park,” which included the opening of the Storybook Trail. This month work began on the amphitheater.

Just two months ago, when Freeman asked City Administrator Scott Collins if he could talk to the Elk Valley Times about the proposed Storybook Trail, Collins gave him the go-ahead, adding “put your sail up, we’re your wind”  - until they weren’t.

So what changed?

While Collins says he knew about these projects, elected officials contend they were not aware of them and began questioning why the park’s city administrator allowed this to go on, being this is city property whereby putting the liability squarely on their shoulders.

Communication shows that on July 29, Collins invited Freeman to the Parks and Recreation Committee meeting on Monday, August 3, 2020 at 3 p.m. after Freeman sent Collins his ideas for upcoming projects at Don Davidson Park that included an outdoor theater, islands of grass and trees to frame in the fields, which was designated as a November project.  Collins added, “Love your ideas,” when Freeman responded to the invitation.

Members present included Alderman Tonya Allen and Alderman Rachael Martinez, who serve on this committee, City Administrator Scott Collins, Chris Mitchell and Malisha Widner with Parks and Recreation, Pam Gentry, Alderman Donna Hartman, who says she attends all meeting to get firsthand information, and Freeman.

Minutes from that meeting show under New Business was Don Davidson Complex Nature Preserve – Kevin Freeman’s presentation regarding his passion for Don Davidson Complex. It reads: “Mr. Freeman was on the Recreation Board in 2007 where he helped introduce 2.5 miles of bike trails to Don Davidson. Good ideas have to be vetted. He has volunteered countless hours of labor and time to the park, adding native species of insects, butterflies, etc. Also, planting sunflowers and heeling in 300 to 400 trees to be planted at a later time in the park, giving lots of shade for families and individuals to enjoy the park 355 days a year. Kevin presented a drawing of an amphitheater he would like to see happen at the park. This can and should be used by families for weddings, parties, etc. Parks and Recreation can rent this out like the park pavilions, bringing revenue into the City of Fayetteville. Kevin is working with a high-school aged volunteer that would like to see a basketball court introduced at the complex. There is a good area where one of the pavilions are that doesn’t get used….Disc Golf has brought so many more people into the park already this year. Parks and Recreation is ordering signs to promote all the activities there are at Don Davidson Park for more advertisement at the complex.”

Under discussions in the Director’s Report, it states: “Kevin Freeman’s presentation, are we voting on this, asked Alderman Martinez.” The next paragraph states that “Parks and Recreation would like to see a basketball court introduced at the park,” detailing a cost of $6,000 to make the pavilion pad into a regulation size basketball court. Minutes do not show a vote being taken.

Last week, after the Elk Valley Times was contacted inquiring if Don Davidson Park was being closed and if some of the recent additions to the park would be removed. Information was also received that the mayor and aldermen were holding a work session on Thursday. A call to city resulted in neither the denial nor confirmation about the park closing but acknowledged the time and date of the work session. Therefore, a Breaking News report was posted on Facebook about the upcoming meeting.

Collins then released a statement titled: Don Davidson/Lions Club Trails are not being closed. Nor is volunteer work being discouraged. “It has been reported to the City of Fayetteville that rumors are circulating on social media, namely Facebook, that the city has plans to stop all volunteer work and close the trails that have been built and improved upon for over a decade at Don Davidson/Lions Club Complex. For clarification, there is a communication and/or misunderstanding and is certainly a totally FALSE RUMOR. There has been absolutely no action, or no plans discussed to dampen volunteer spirit that has made improvements to the complex. In addition, there is no item on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Work Session agenda on October 8, 2020 to even discuss, much less act on thwarting volunteer work or closing the trails at the Complex.”

He went on to state that the “the confusion may stem from a discussion to improve communication and coordination between the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, city officials and volunteers that have worked on city-owned property.” He said that every improvement made on all city properties must be reported to the city’s liability insurance provider. “Again the goal is to improve communication between all entities involved.”

Citizens were also confused after seeing yellow tape around parts of the Don Davidson Park. The tape roped off sections for the cross-country race held earlier at the park.

Later in an interview, Collins said that “one hand needs to know what the other is doing.” He also acknowledged that Freeman had never been told he needed to present a written plan. Yet, records show written plans for projects had been received. Were they presented to the mayor and aldermen, with two aldermen sitting on the Parks and Recreation Committee?

After Freeman was told not to do any more work at Don Davidson Park until further notice, he said he went to the park after dark one evening to retrieve his personal tools. While there, he said police cars arrived and officers questioned what he was doing. He returned the next morning to see if he’s recovered all his tools. “The police chief came by and we had a nice conversation.”

Freeman also said that he doesn’t do any project at the park without approval. “

Following the Mayor and Board of Aldermen Work Session last Thursday, Alderman Martinez said that “no one on my committee mentioned closing Don Davidson Park. We did ask that work be stopped for liability purposes. There was a lot going on and nobody knew about it.” She also said that her idea of an amphitheater was different from the one being built at the park, while acknowledging she hadn’t been to Don Davidson Park in over a year.

Vice Mayor Dorothy Small said she became concerned after seeing pictures of heavy equipment at the park being posted on social media and that the work had somehow by-passed committees. She also said that after walking the Trails for Kids for the first time the previous day, “I was extremely impressed.”

“Our parks are richer and more diverse than they were 10 years ago because of volunteers,” said Mayor Michael Whisenant. “It’s a fact that the board and city have to be aware of what’s going on and we have always been transparent. Going forward, communication will be improved.”