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Council: Name trail for King

091715MichalBrooks (1).jpg

Michael Brooks

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Though not without some at times intense debate, Elizabeth City City Council on Monday approved building a new nature trail at Charles Creek Park, and naming it after civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

Council’s vote on the $135,000 project was 6-2, with only Councilors Johnnie Walton and Darius Horton voting no.

First proposed by city staff this spring, the project calls for a 500-foot boardwalk loop, plus informative habitat alcoves and a garden, to be built south of the park's pavilion. With the city only having one $10,000 grant to offset the boardwalk’s cost, the project has been on the back burner until recently.

Councilor Michael Brooks on Monday urged the city to go ahead and build the trail, saying he decided to push for it after touring the project area with city staff, including Community Development Director Matthew Schelly and Parks and Recreation Director Dexter Harris.

Though the city often postpones projects while pursuing grants, Brooks said the city needed to go ahead and provide the trail for city youth.

“We always talk about what Elizabeth City doesn't have,” Brooks said. “We have resources that haven't been tapped into, and this is one of them.”

Claiming the city needs to invest in its children, Brooks said the city could afford to finance the project.

Harris told councilors the city would need a loan of $125,000, to be repaid over five years, to complete the project.

In a rare public disagreement with Brooks, Walton and Horton said they were opposed to taking on debt to pay for the trail. They argued the project's cost greatly outweighed its benefits.

Alluding to proponents' claims that the project would attract visitors to Museum of the Albemarle and downtown Elizabeth City, Walton claimed people in fact would spend little time on the short trail.

“That's not making a difference in many people's lives,” Walton said, adding, “You can look on the computer and see a boardwalk, you can find all the education you need.”

By approving the trail, council is also approving an expense not budgeted for less than a month before a new city council takes office. That prompted Walton to call for a “moratorium on spending with this group,” meaning the current council.

“We're cutting the purse of the next council,” Walton said.

Horton said he agreed with Walton. Though he said the project is “worthwhile,” Horton said the city shouldn't borrow money to build it.

That led to sharp exchanges between Brooks and Horton, with Brooks noting Horton had voted in support of the project last week.

“I don't know what happened between the finance committee meeting and now,” Brooks said, reiterating he would not “bow down” from his stance for investment in city youth. “You can't say one thing in finance committee when the cameras aren't on and then come before the cameras (in council meetings) and say something different. … I don't play those type games.”

Horton said he didn't owe Brooks an explanation, but suggested his vote at the finance committee meeting was to advance the item simply for discussion. During last week's finance committee meeting, Horton questioned the long-term maintenance costs of the trail — the boardwalk should last 10 to 15 years, City Manager Rich Olson replied — but didn't state any opposition to the city borrowing money to pay for it.

Later, during the “comments and inquiries” portion of the council meeting, Brooks again expressed criticism of Horton for appearing to support the project during the committee meeting but changing his mind at Monday’s council meeting.

Horton repeated his reasoning and commented “it's ignorant to spend that amount of money for some students to look at some bushes.”

A short back-and-forth ensued with both men telling the other to “shut up.”

While discussing the nature trail, Walton also proposed that, if the project is to proceed, it should be named after Martin Luther King Jr.

After some procedural confusion over the city’s naming policy, council voted to schedule a public hearing after which it could make the name official.

Opposed to naming the trail after King, Councilor Ray Donnelly suggested the city find a prominent local environmentalist to name it for.

Brooks said he was strongly opposed to that, noting King's accomplishments, including attaining a high level of education — a doctorate in systematic theology, specifically — and encouraging others do the same.

Notably, Walton's proposal wouldn’t change the name of Charles Creek Park itself.

Asked about the origins of the park’s name, Museum of the Albemarle Collections Assistant Leonard Lanier said Tuesday that, as best local historians can tell, Charles Creek was named after a prominent slaveholder and early settler of Elizabeth City in the early 1800s.

Lanier said the late local photographer and historian J. Howard Stevens believed the creek was named for Stephen Charles Sr., who received a deed to a tanning yard there in 1804. Additionally, Thomas Butchko's 1989 book about local architecture, “On the Shores of the Pasquotank,” also notes the creek was named for the Charles family.

There's no question that Stephen Charles Sr. held slaves, Lanier continued, as U.S. Census records showed he held four slaves in 1810, 12 in 1820, and eight in 1830. Charles also addressed disposition of his slaves in his will in 1837, Lanier noted.

Based on the separate research from both Stevens and Butchko, Lanier said he was confident Charles Creek was named for Stephen Charles Sr. Lanier also noted that, by owning 12 slaves at one point, Charles would have been among the largest slaveholders in the area at the time.

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