September 26, 2009 9:47:00 PM
We should have known better.
The recent joint meeting between the city and county concerning placing a park and soccer complex in Burns Bottom appeared to be a rare moment of unity among city and county leaders -- and even more rare, a consensus within county leadership.
Two distinct philosophies were presented at the Sept. 17 joint meeting, both with proposed funding schemes that would not lead to higher taxes.
One approach, presented by county Supervisor Leroy Brooks, would have floated a bond issue to pay for all recreation needs. Brooks'' plan would construct the Burns Bottom soccer park, renovate Propst Park and also set aside money to upgrade community parks, which are primarily in black neighborhoods. To service the bond debt, Brooks would use money now going to an almost retired bond for the jail.
The other approach, advocated by supervisors President Harry Sanders and Link Executive Director Joe Higgins, focused attention on Burns Bottom and the immediate area. The county would fund the Burns Bottom project, in return for the city donating land and in-kind services along with a commitment to renovate the nearby Trotter Convention Center. The idea behind this approach: Clean up the city''s "front door" to the outside world -- the entrance to downtown -- and more economic development could follow, including plans for a new hotel to replace the existing Gilmer Inn, located between the park and the Trotter.
While Brooks and Supervisor Jeff Smith lobbied for the comprehensive approach, which would also look at community parks, they were assured that those parks would be addressed in the future, separate from the Burns Bottom/Trotter plan.
So Smith, Brooks and other city and county leaders agreed unanimously to take the second approach, with formal votes on the plan to come this week during official meetings. The light was appearing at the end of the tunnel. After more than a decade of discussing building soccer fields in Columbus, our leaders seemed to be in agreement, on the location, on the approach and on funding.
The backsliding began almost immediately.
Brooks, apparently stung that his plan wasn''t the accepted one, the next day circulated a letter among black city and county leaders, stating that he would not support the Burns Bottom/Trotter plan after all, unless money was guaranteed for neighborhood parks.
A few days later, Brooks sent an invitation to black elected and community leaders to meet about his community parks proposal. Invitations were not sent to white leaders, nor did he invite the media, though word quickly spread.
After crossing so many hurdles to get to an agreement on the soccer complex, we are disheartened by the way Brooks has injected race into the issue. Even if Brooks sees things this way, we hope the citizens of Columbus and Lowndes County do not see the Burns Bottom park as a "white park" and community parks as "black parks." As it is conceived, the soccer park will be a community park used by a wide range of citizens just as the Riverwalk is now. Do not all parks belong to all the citizens? Cannot and will not both white and black residents make use of the many acres of natural space Burns Bottom would provide?
Brooks apparently sees the "front door" plan as one that benefits white residents, while he and his constituents forever remain at the "back door" (the offhand remark by Higgins to describe the entrance to downtown has been twisted into a plantation-era slur). We dismiss this argument as irrational and divisive, especially since both the city and county agreed to tackle community parks in the future, after their needs are more clearly assessed and defined.
So here we are again. The tragedy: Brooks'' overall strategy to tackle all parks in a comprehensive manner makes just as much sense as the plan backed by Sanders -- perhaps even more so. It reflects the comprehensive plan that has long been advocated by the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority. Brooks'' arguments during the joint city-county meeting were persuasive. For that matter, it makes sense for there to be some type of formal commitment or resolution concerning the future investment in community parks, whether or not they''re included in the Burns Bottom plan.
If only Brooks had made more of an effort to persuade the entire community to the value of his plan and his concerns, instead of driving a wedge between the white and black communities through exclusionary tactics and attempted secrecy.
We believe that if Brooks had chosen persuasion, instead of alienation, this or a future editorial might have been about how he won the day.