Some are big, some are small, some are prime, some are not
By D.R. Bartlette
“The sense of community is strong in Fayetteville, and they feel their parks can help make the sense of community stronger.”
This was according to the city’s 10-Year Master Plan, created in 2002. The plan, created with input from the city board and staff members as well as the public, continues to shape the Parks and Recreation Division’s policies.
Public meetings, held at various public schools and other venues in the fall of 2000, allowed citizens to share observations and concerns about their parks and offer suggestions. According to notes from these meetings, most of the parks seemed to be satisfactory, and some were better than others: the entrance to Gulley Park, one of the most heavily used parks in the city, was described as “exemplifying the high level of maintenance and quality facilities throughout the park.” In fact, at another public meeting, one citizen was concerned that Gulley Park was being “over-planted.”
But the input wasn’t all rosy. People said some parks felt downright unsafe, particularly Lake Fayetteville, Finger Park, Walker Park and Lake Wilson Park. This reporter did a check-up on these “scary” parks to see how much improvement had been made in the last six years.
Lake Fayetteville: Most Improved
Lake Fayetteville, described as “scary” at one public meeting, had made headlines for criminal activity in the past. In 1991, two sting operations at what is now Veteran’s Memorial Park resulted in several arrests for “homosexual activity.”
Since then, the park has had enormous improvements. There is plenty of signage and an information kiosk at the entrance to the park; inside are neat ball fields, shady picnic spots and a long, meandering trail. Anglers, ball players, and families out for a Sunday stroll were enjoying the park. There was some litter on the shoreline, but most of the messes came from the resident geese.
Shane Pelton, a long-time Fayetteville resident, recently visited Lake Fayetteville for the first time to ride his bike on the trail. He said he felt safe, and that he observed plenty of bike cops. He said the trails were “really easy to get to, but hilly!”
Finger Park: Great Strides
Finger Park was another park that was identified in the 2000 public meetings as unsafe. The picnic areas were not ADA accessible and the playground equipment did not meet safety standards. The 0.6-mile wooded trail was often littered with discarded liquor bottles, beer cans and spray-painted Wal-Mart bags – leftovers from people huffing paint fumes.
In the following years, the Parks and Recreation Division did implement the recommendations from the 10-Year Master Plan: it installed paved walkways from the parking to the picnic areas and playground, making them handicapped accessible, and it replaced the older playground equipment with a new, safer structure. On the day this reporter visited the park, the litter was light to moderate, though there was still some broken glass in the picnic area near the entrance. The trail was much cleaner – no bottles, cans or bags.
Walker Park: Mixed Reviews
Walker Park is a huge park – 64 total acres – that includes baseball fields, soccer fields, picnic tables and pavilions, a playground, tennis courts, basketball courts, handball courts, murals, a skate park and a BMX track. According to notes taken at the community meetings in 2000, Walker Park felt unsafe to many because of its close location to the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter, which “attracts vagrants who sleep in the wooded areas adjacent to the park.” Others said that Walker Park felt ‘unsafe’ and ‘spooky’ with the homeless people and stray dogs roaming the park at all hours.
The city has clearly spent some time and money to improve and maintain this important community park. Basketball, handball, and tennis courts have been resurfaced, playground equipment has been replaced and there is a rock sign with colorful plantings at the southeastern corner of the park identifying the park.
The small skate park seemed to be the most popular spot, attracting skateboarders, bike riders and razor-scooter riders of all ages. Preston Hamm, 21, and Burke Johnson, 22, both BMX riders, said they come to the skate park almost every day. Hamm said it was the only place to ride.
“I like it,” Hamm said. “We need more places like it.”
Hamm and Johnson also had suggestions for the skate park.
“It needs to be bigger,” Hamm said. He said he thought the park needed “taller half-pipes, a bigger fun box and a bigger jump box.”
Johnson agreed. “There are a lot of serious people that enjoy the steeper stuff.”
Johnson said the existing jump box is too small, there is a lot of wasted space the area is uneven. “And it needs lights,” he said, because the park is open until late.
At the basketball courts, there were four young men shooting hoops. They said they don’t see many homeless people there anymore, but “stuff happens.” They were adamant that the park was not safe at night; three of the men said they had been jumped in the park before. What could the city do to make the park safer? Besides security guards, they said, “Relocate the park!”
But not everyone agrees with that assessment. Patrick (who declined to give his last name), originally from New Orleans, has lived in Fayetteville for three years now. He said he thinks the park is really safe. “I like this park,” he said.
Lake Wilson Park: The Forgotten Stepchild?
Despite being categorized as “unsafe” in the 10-Year Master Plan, Lake Wilson Park has a lot to offer. Totaling 275 acres, 250 of which are undeveloped, Lake Wilson Park is described as an example of the highest order [of] open space by the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association. Surrounded by privately owned natural areas, the park provides habitat for many native plants and animals. The lake, the city’s former water supply, is now a popular fishing hole. The 2.6-mile hiking trail “may be the most scenic trail in any city park,” said Bob Caulk, chair of the FNHA.
On the day this reporter visited, Fayetteville resident Gwendy Lefforge was enjoying the park with her husband and their three children.
“The trail is awesome,” Lefforge said. “And it’s just the right level for my kids.”
Lefforge said this was only their second time to visit the park, but they have spotted wildlife both times. “We just saw a whole bunch of turtles [today],” Lefforge said.
Yet for all its beauty, the city seems to have neglected this hidden park. It’s located at the end of a muddy, potholed dirt and gravel road, across the crumbling Tilly Willy bridge, with no signs indicating where the park is located. Lefforge said the drive to the park was “scary” and she would not be comfortable coming to the park alone.
There is no sign identifying the park or informing visitors of the rules or hours, which was one of the concerns noted in the 10-year Master Plan in 2002. Tracie Martin, financial coordinator for Parks and Recreation, said the sign had been removed for replacement with a new sign “within the next couple [of] weeks.”
According to Connie Edmonston, the Parks and Recreation director, trash is picked up weekly, and the Ozark Off Road Cyclists have adopted the park. But there are only two trash cans in the entire park, and sometimes there are large amounts of litter, including broken glass and fishing lines with hooks, near the pavilion and trailhead. In addition, the pavilion is not handicapped accessible.
“This is not the most well-maintained park in Fayetteville, and I’ve been to a lot of parks,” Lefforge said. She said that she and her family spend a lot of time at Lake Fayetteville, and called it “immaculate” compared to Lake Wilson. “It [Lake Wilson] seems neglected,” she said.
Edmonston said Lake Wilson is “a beautiful park,” but because of funding and priorities, the city has not done a lot of development at the park. In fact, most of the park’s amenities have been donated or are administered by others: the pavilion was donated by the Jaycees, the trail was created by the Ozark Society and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission manages the fish in the lake.
According to Martin, the parks staff spends an estimated 130 hours mowing and weed eating at Lake Wilson each year, compared to 104 hours per year at the Lake Fayetteville marina area. In addition, Martin said the two-rail fence was recently repaired and staff painted the picnic tables and tabletops.
In the meantime, Edmonston said she has been visiting with a Boy Scout to develop signage on the trail and to improve the trails system, plus possibly building a kiosk with a trail map, for his Eagle Scout project.
“Lake Wilson is not a ‘forgotten stepchild,’” Edmonston said. “We see so much potential for this park.”