Passionate locals remember building Town Square, worry for the park's future
Locals remember building Town Square. Now, some worry about its future.
Bob Headley and John DeWitt sit at the Tee Hut on the Black Mountain Golf Course, one of their favorite spots. DeWitt, white hair parted and combed, eagerly begins the conversation. His companion, Headley, sits back in his chair, interjecting when necessary to clarify or add details.
The two men represent the Black Mountain Parks and Greenways Inc., the foundation chaired by DeWitt that built Town Square.
Currently, due to a shaky relationship with the town, Headley and DeWitt worry about Town Square's future. With nothing in writing about what changes can be made and how the park can be used, the two fear commercialization of the space.
Headley began the story back in 2010, explaining the need the community felt to preserve the town center, rather than develop it. Headley and DeWitt, among others, began mobilizing the community to create something on the patch of land.
"The town agreed to allow us to have a Town Square there, and they would pay for the land, but we would be responsible for raising money for whatever was put there," Headley said.
A group of folks, including Headley's wife, Willie, one of the main proponents of the park; Don Collins, the mayor at the time; and various aldermen became motivated to create the park. DeWitt led the Town Square Steering Committee in developing a plan.
Creation of the Willie Garden
Roughly 10 years ago, Willie Headley died.
Libba Fairleigh, a member of the Beautification Committee, remembered her fondly, describing how she exemplified hard work, dedication and a positive attitude. Fairleigh wrote a piece in 2011, while Willie battled a brain tumor, on how she inspired much of the work done for the Town Square, as well as the town overall.
"She was loved in this community," DeWitt agreed.
"Willie advocated for the Town Square," said Joyce Black Woerz, who led the design of the Willie Garden. "We wanted to honor her memory, for a number of reasons, by having that memorial garden for her."
Black Woerz led a group of volunteers who offered input to the garden based on everything they knew of Willie. She said the garden incorporates a variety of features, including wildflowers to commemorate Willie's homemade arrangements for her church, and a Zen section complete with perennials.
Remembering Willie, Black Woerz said it was important for the designers to include every idea as Willie would have done.
"She was always so gracious to every person that she met," Black Woerz said.
Suzanne Money, Fairleigh's partner, worked closely with Black Woerz to design the garden. She now coordinates Beautification Committee members to maintain the memorial garden and the flower beds at Town Square.
Money said groups come in and mulch the area as well as pull weeds, keeping everything looking neat and tidy.
"We do the maintenance on it," Money said. "It's fairly easy."
Planning, donations and commemoration
Before the park creation process could begin, the community needed to raise money. The organizers traveled throughout the Swannanoa Valley, presenting numerous times to businesses, organizations and even at individual homes.
Before it was finished, Headley said, the committee raised just under $1 million.
"I don't know how many presentations we made," Headley joked.
Commemorative mementos exist throughout the park. Names of members of the steering committee, donors and the memorial to Willie Headley can be seen on small plaques and even on the bricks leading into the park.
In garnering donations, DeWitt said the plan developed around the Willie Garden. Though the garden was designed by the Beautification Committee, the majority of the work came from DeWitt and his group of passionate community members.
At this point in the process, DeWitt said the group became the Black Mountain Parks and Greenways Inc., an official foundation formed to handle donations properly under basic tax laws. The creation of the foundation allowed for the town and the group to be protected.
"There was still people opposed to this," DeWitt said. "We did get some nasty emails along the way."
The square becomes a park
Although the town helped with the project, all the money raised, all the workers hired to put together the park, came from the funds raised by the foundation.
DeWitt said members of the public scrutinized the process to ensure the town paid for nothing, that no tax dollars went into the project.
"The money we raised, the people we hired, built the thing," Headley emphasized.
Donations came from a variety of sources including the Rotary Club, Montreat College and Ingles.
Collins, the former mayor, served as the liaison between the Steering Committee and the town. He said he knew the project could be completed without using taxpayer money.
"There were guys like John DeWitt and Bob Headley who just wanted to do the right thing," Collins said. "Everything that's on the Town Square right now didn't cost the Black Mountain taxpayer a penny."
As a final surprise, the Parks and Greenways foundation purchased the town clock. The night before the unveiling, when the park would be handed over to the town, DeWitt had the clock installed.
With the project more or less completed, the town dismissed DeWitt and Headley, but donations continued to come in. DeWitt said he still has a significant amount of funding left over.
Relationship with the town and the future of the park
Having only a loosely formed agreement with the town in place for maintenance and use, DeWitt continues to use the excess funds for the betterment of the park. He put in a gazebo and ran an underground sprinkler system throughout the space, but disagrees with the town when it comes to usage.
Above all else, DeWitt and Headley aim to prohibit commercial use in Town Square.
"It was paid for by people, not taxes," DeWitt said. "We're very insistent that there be no vendors, no reservations can be made, you can't set up tents, you can't sell cookies there."
This insistence extends to signage. DeWitt said the first few years went smoothly, but he soon began to see campaign signs popping up. He said whenever he sees a sign in the park, he pulls over, pulls the sign out and throws it away.
With a new Town Council in place, Headley and DeWitt worry about the future of the park, since most of the current members did not hold office during the park's creation. Headley said nothing was officially put into writing, but it was understood that if the town wanted to add something to the park, the foundation would have to approve it.
Collins agreed with DeWitt and Headley, saying he has concerns for the town's use of the park. He said while the town does own the park and therefore can do as it likes, it's not morally right to go against what the designers and community had intended.
Headley said Mayor Larry Harris doesn't have passion for the park, or at least, not as much passion as the Parks and Greenways foundation for protecting the area.
In August 2020, with the Sourwood festival in full swing, DeWitt became angered at seeing tents and vendors set up in the park.
"I've got wires everywhere under this ground, running the sprinkler system, the clocks," DeWitt said. "I've got pipes everywhere, you're going to put stakes in the ground?"
The town adopted a Town Square Use Policy when the park was unveiled, according to Josh Harrold, town manager. He said the policy was updated only once, to allow for tents during the Sourwood Festival.
The policy includes provisions such as hours of bathroom operation, the prohibition of smoking and alcohol within the park and a section specifically addressing commercialized use. According to town policy, no sales or signs may take place or be put within Town Square.
"Ultimately, at the end of the day, it is public property, which is of course regulated by the town," Harrold said. "It really doesn't have anything to do with the Parks and Greenways Foundation."
Harrold said if a community member had ideas of what the square should be used for, they would be welcome to come before Town Council to pitch the idea. Given that the town owns the park property, additions to the park would need to be approved.
According to Collins, the town doesn't seem to realize how much effort went into the park. He said if another opportunity comes along in the future, for the town to undertake something similar at no cost to the taxpayer, he worries what the result will be.
Headley agreed, saying what happens now sets a precedent for the future.
DeWitt said he sees more and more requests to the town for additions, damaging the "purity" of the square, while the Parks and Greenways foundation continues to lose control. He smiles while he speaks but gestures emphatically with his hands.
"It's a beautiful park," Headley agreed, his voice calm and nostalgic. "We don't want to see it deteriorate over the years. We really feel strongly about the Town Square."
Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.