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Understanding the Arch Street Dilemma: Groups wanted part in planning for walking trail

The visitors didn’t say much. For that matter, it seemed as if they simply wanted to listen.

Almost two months ago, the city of Demopolis was awarded more than $400,000 from the state to construct a scenic walking trail along Arch Street. In return, the city also was awarded with irate phone calls and lawsuit threats about specifics of the plan.

Kay Dunn, Louise Reynolds and John Laney, all outspoken opponents of the Arch Street project, attended a meeting of the Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission on Tuesday, hoping to gain the ear of another community group opposed to the plan. Instead, they soon learned there was little to hear and even less to say.

“Basically, our position and role in the project is to try to have some input into what items are put along the riverfront,” said Brian Brooker, chair of the preservation commission. “Our position is to help with the appearance.”

In other words, the Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission has no public plans to fight the city’s grant. Instead, the group simply wants an opportunity to be involved in the project if it happens.

And that’s a big “if” right now. Though the Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission doesn’t have intentions of fighting the grant, other groups have expressed great discord in the city’s riverfront development plan.

Dunn, Reynolds and Laney, all of whom own property along the proposed walking trail, continued an area tour of government and civic-group stops Tuesday to make sure the preservation commission knew their thoughts.

“We’d like the city to take into account the historic nature of the area,” Laney said. “I’d hate to see [Arch Street] become a nuisance, as opposed to being something others would enjoy.”

According to Laney, people — mostly pleasant — already meander through the Arch Street area. In that case, Laney questioned the need for further development.

Dunn and Reynolds, who don’t like the particulars of the plan, decided to stay mum on the issue Tuesday.

“I’m just here,” Reynolds told the preservation commission when asked to speak.

Dunn, matter-of-factly, declared she had “said enough already.”

After the meeting, Laney, Reynolds and Dunn were asked for specific reasons why they didn’t support the project. Reynolds, again, felt it best not to comment. Dunn offered one suggestion.

“I don’t know of any towns that have walking trails through existing residential areas,” Dunn said. “Look at Tuscaloosa and Phenix City. They don’t have it there.”

Laney’s concerns focus more on the origination of the grant proposal prepared by city officials.

“We were not involved in the planning of this project,” Laney said. “I think it would have been a good compromise for the city and neighborhoods to get together and talk through the plans.”

A piece of the fight

Along with property owners, other groups have become involved in fighting the grant; maybe for much of the same reasons Dunn, Reynolds and Laney don’t like the idea.

Kirk Brooker, who attended Tuesday night’s meeting, has become a vocal critic and has even written a letter to Demopolis Mayor Austin Caldwell on behalf of the Marengo County Historical Society.

“It is with grave concern that I am writing on behalf of the Board of Directors of the Marengo County Historical Society,” Kirk Brooker wrote in his letter. “… We are asking that you strike our name from this project. Without proper notification and input, we do not support this project as submitted.”

Though Brooker’s letter to Caldwell repeatedly stressed that he was writing on behalf of the historical society’s board, Brooker said Tuesday that his board has not yet discussed the project.

“The Historical Society has not addressed this at all,” he told members of the preservation commission on Tuesday evening.

Though it is uncertain what stance the entire board of the historical society will take during their meeting next week, Brooker told Caldwell that his group is not entirely opposed to the project.

“I stress that the Marengo County Historical Society is not in support of this project as submitted;” he wrote, “however, we do not oppose such a project with proper guidance and input.”

Brooker also said the Marengo County Historical Society “has deferred such matters” to the Demopolis Historic Preservation Commission.

Kirk Brooker’s group isn’t the only one taking up the Arch Street scuffle.

During a meeting last week, the Demopolis Beautification Committee — of which Kirk Brooker also is a member — wrote a letter to the city expressing concern with the current walking trail plans.

Why the fight?

Whether it’s the group of property owners, the Marengo County Historical Society — once it formally discusses the issue — or the Demopolis Beautification Committee, the issue at hand seems to be one of preliminary planning and open communication.

Laney said property owners wanted to work with the city to reach a compromise.

Kirk Brooker’s letter clearly stated the historical society is considered a property owner — the group operates Bluff Hall and the Canebrake Craft Corner, both in the project area — and they felt deserving of inclusion in the planning process.

The Beautification Committee, listed in the original grant as an endorser of the project, said it wasn’t approached and never endorsed the project.

Demopolis Mayor Austin Caldwell admitted Tuesday evening that some things could have been different at the outset of the grant process.

“Yes, you always would do things differently,” he said. “That’s why hindsight is so good.”

Caldwell, who said he did receive the letter from Brooker, believes the city can still work through the Arch Street project. Asked where the city currently stands on the issue, the Mayor said consideration is being given to changing the grant “to make it more palatable to residents.”

Though it’s not clear what can be changed in an already approved grant, Caldwell said the city could shorten the route of the plan.

“Any change like that would probably cost us some of the grant money,” he said.

However, Caldwell defended the city’s use of the Marengo County Historical Society and Beautification Committee when the grant was first presented to the Alabama Department of Transportation.

“In my letter, I did use those groups,” he said. “Last year, the city of Demopolis approved a strategic plan for development, and some of the same representatives were on the committee that wrote the plan.”

For instance, key leaders of the historical society and beautification committee were among those who endorsed development of the riverfront, Caldwell said.

“Well, the only riverfront we’ve got is from the city landing to the cemetery,” he said. “And since they approved the strategic plan, we felt they were endorsing this project.”

Along with that unwritten endorsement, the historical society and the beautification committee apparently endorsed the original Arch Street plan in the late 1970s.

Thursday, the Demopolis City Council is expected to further address the status of the grant, though it is unclear if they will make a decision on the project.