The No. 1 question Cindy David and Bob Vernon get over the fence of their South Jefferson Street property each weekend: “Is this a park?”
Her answer: “We hope, one day, for it to be something like that.”
Those seem to be the feelings, too, of the visitors who’ve slipped between the fence gap, romped upon the grass or sat beneath its towering trees.
“Thank you for a lovely, inspiring place,” one wrote in the comment book the couple have left there for two years.
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“It’s a great public space,” wrote another. “Everybody needs a quiet place to go to get away from things. Not everyone can make it to the (state) park.”
It isn’t exactly a public space; insurance liability makes that tricky for the couple.
But it could be, if the Nashville Town Council can make it happen.
Since April, the couple have been talking through a proposal to sell the 1.75-acre property to the town for use as a park.
If the details can be worked out, this could be the second municipal park to be developed in the past year.
The Village Green
The town’s current focus is on the Village Green, five blocks north of Vernon and David’s property.In May, the town was awarded a $50,000 state grant for the Village Green Revitalization Project to build an “all-ages play space” at Jefferson and Main streets.
The town owns all four corners, but the focus of the “revitalization” has been on the southeast one. Town-owned restrooms were built there in the old library building, which reopened with its new purpose in May.
Technically, the Village Green has been a park for more than 100 years, said Scott Rudd, Nashville’s town manager/economic development director. He found an old town ordinance declaring it so, and plat maps from nearly a century earlier reflect that use, too.
But it hasn’t been used to its full potential, and the idea of creating a play and gathering space is an effort to connect it back to the town founders’ intent, he said.
The volunteer Village Green Revitalization Committee has yet to decide exactly what will be built on the lawn outside the restrooms. Large play equipment like swings or climbing towers hasn’t been in the vision because of the size of the space.
At their last meeting Aug. 17, the committee was talking about creating “interactive panels” that would encourage children to play while keeping them safe from traffic at Main and Jefferson. They discussed a theme of “living things” and getting artists involved.
A request for proposals is expected to be published later this summer, and once the committee decides what it wants, construction could move forward.
Depending on available funds, other small, unobtrusive projects could happen on other corners in later years, in an effort to draw locals and visitors to that intersection which hosted street fairs decades ago — and still does draw interest, for special events.
On the northwest corner, a spacious pavilion was donated in 2011 by the Johnson family, where a series of free concerts has been staged this summer.
There’s also been talk about restoring, in some way, the town pump on the southeast corner, where locals used to come to draw water for their homes and their animals.
“We’re very close to moving forward on some great improvements to that space to really embrace that history, and enhance all the activities that are already happening there and make them much more enjoyable,” Rudd said.
Money and more
Since the town didn’t have public land being used as parks until the Village Green project, it doesn’t have a designated budget for acquiring or maintaining them, Rudd said.Money is the sticking point to making something happen with the Jefferson Street property, town council President “Buzz” King said. Enough money may be found eventually to buy it, but not right away, he told Vernon and David at the last meeting.
The council voted months ago to commit up to $50,000 in economic development income tax money toward the Village Green project, Rudd said. Another $25,000 in in-kind services, such as town employee labor, was pledged, too.
Economic development income tax money would be the primary way park projects could be funded, Rudd said. That fund — budgeted at $131,050 for 2016 — also supports the town’s arts and entertainment commission, the tree board and part of Rudd’s salary, according to the state’s budget database.
Developing parks is “a placemaking investment, and that is directly related to economic development,” Rudd said.
“Placemaking” is the concept of developing public spaces that inspire a sense of community and belonging, according to research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Those are the kinds of communities people are likely to move to or stay in, if they have a choice, Rudd said.
“There’s a big picture here. It’s much more than a place for kids to play,” he said.
A larger discussion needs to be had in local government about how to invest in projects like parks, to hold onto and attract residents, he said.
Other communities dedicate half their growth quotient — the amount the state allows their budget to increase each year — to parks, even though they might not have a parks department, Rudd said.
Nashville could use more of those places. “There hasn’t been, traditionally or historically, a place to walk to from town to play and get out in nature,” he said.
Before the first, three-quarter-mile section of the Salt Creek Trail opened in 2013, there was no safe way to walk or ride a bike through much of town, he said.
And since the trail hasn’t been able to extend farther yet, options are still limited without packing up bikes and strollers in a vehicle and driving to someplace like the state park or Yellowwood, he said.
Vernon and David’s Jefferson Street property is a neighbor to the Salt Creek Trail, a paved path eventually envisioned to connect downtown with Brown County State Park and the Nashville schools campus.
The town isn’t in charge of building or negotiating the trail — a different committee is — but Rudd, Vernon and David all shared a vision to extend the trail the other way, too, to the county’s Deer Run Park off Helmsburg Road.
From the Jefferson Street property, it would be a matter of hopping the creek twice and crossing a privately owned field to get to the park, where 66 acres of ball fields, trails, play equipment, a basketball court, shelterhouse, archery range and new boat ramp can be enjoyed for free.
But right now, the only safe way to get to Deer Run is by car, and that needs to be fixed, Rudd said.
“Making that connection, for children after school to be able to safely ride their bikes there for practice, and parents to walk out and watch games, and walk their dogs, it’s just a tremendous asset for town, and it’s definitely something we need to do as a town to make that a priority and work with the county and the Salt Creek Trail committee, wherever there might be a way to get to the park, to help do that,” he said.
About acquiring Vernon and David’s property, “Yes it’s a stretch, but it’s something the council thinks is important, if we can make it happen,” Rudd said.
“The question is, can we afford it, and how do we pay for it? And how do we maintain it in the long term?”
History and future
Sitting under a pair of giant pines, Vernon and David smile at the interplay of engines on Van Buren Street and cicadas in the woods behind them.
They bought the land on the bank of Salt Creek in 2011, seeking to save it from possible development.
They’ve been “having a blast of a time” molding the former pay-parking lot into a haven for songbirds, a bald eagle and butterflies; and for visitors from Nashville, California, Illinois and around Indiana, the visitor book shows.
But they’ve taken it about as far as they can take it, and they’d like to see more people enjoy that sanctuary.
“This was, before we got it, Nashville’s favorite dog park,” Vernon said.
“And kid hangout,” David said, about the tiny brick pumphouse that still stands, where the town used to draw its water from Salt Creek.
“These spaces should be for everybody,” David said.
“And those locusts, and those cicadas and that pileated woodpecker need to be there, too.”
In addition to approaching the town, the couple also have talked with Sycamore Land Trust about taking it into their protected lands inventory, which would allow it to be open to the public but with permanent use restrictions. That has not panned out so far, Vernon said.
In their ideal vision, they talk alternately about leaving the property as it is for people of all ages to “commune,” picnic and enjoy the quiet, and putting in a couple simple “retro” play pieces, like a metal swingset “with a little squeak in it.” Maybe there could be an occasional music performance, too, David said.
She mentioned Mill Race Park in Columbus as a good example of what could be done with flood-prone land to make it usable and valuable to a community’s overall wellbeing.
“I don’t see it as a place we have to ‘fix’ for children,” she said about their land.
There is tremendous value in preserving places where “unplugged” experiences can happen for today’s kids, she said — like the simple joy of riding a bike to a park.
“What we all had as kids, that’s all still important for kids. And that just comes with coming of age, that you realize those times are so special and innocent and perfect … and as things get more busy, that kind of thing gets lost.”
A “pocket park” project began last week in downtown Nashville, near the Village Green.
The Tuck Away Courtyard is being developed behind the Brown County Art Guild, in front of the building where the BETA teens meet, in downtown Nashville.
What was once a cluster of parking spaces is being transformed into a shady, spacious, comfortable patio, where artists could work and demonstrate their crafts outside, performances could take place, and locals and visitors could rest or picnic.
“Pocket parks” — molding underused, small spaces into gathering niches — were on the list of suggestions in the 2012 Nashville Economic Development Strategy.
The Brown County Community Foundation awarded the Guild $5,200 for the project; the Metropolitan Indiana Board of Realtors kicked in another $3,000 through its Placemaking Micro-grant Program.
“Basically, placemaking is all about maximizing the community and its assets,” explained MIBOR member Kathy Hall. “As a place becomes more desirable and welcoming, places around that increase in value. And Realtors understand that,” she said.
Some MIBOR members placed a few benches and flower pots Aug. 23; much more work is yet to come.
“The reason we like this idea is, it’s a pop-up park. It can kind of disappear between uses,” said Scott Hutchinson, executive director of the Guild. “And it really complements the Village Green and the intersection between Main and Van Buren streets.”
BETA founder Cindy Steele said the after-school teen group welcomes more space to spread out and be creative.
The courtyard project is part of a larger three-phase Guild plan estimated at $88,105, according to a BCCF grant application. Fundraising is ongoing.
The other two phases are to improve the look of all three of its properties — the Guild building, the Hoosier Artist Gallery building on Jefferson Street and the Tuck Away Building which BETA uses — and add a restroom and kitchenette to the Tuck Away Building.