The Henry County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday adopted a master plan for Nash Farm Park — a local flash-point in the debate over Confederate iconography — that officials hope will reinvent the greenspace as a regional destination.
The plan calls for adding walking paths, an heirloom garden, a playground and an amphitheater that could accommodate thousands. A Civil War battlefield would be preserved in the plan.
“This is the initial first step,” Henry County Manager Cheri Hobson-Matthews told the board, adding that officials need to prioritize which projects to work on first. “This won’t happen tomorrow.”
The approval comes almost seven months after Nash Farm Park became mired in the national movement to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces.
Dozens of Henry residents — both supporters and opponents of the symbols — descended on the commission’s June meeting last year to react to the closing of the park’s museum.
Owners of the memorabilia pulled their items from the facility after Henry Commissioner Dee Clemmons asked the museum to take down Confederate flags flying on the property. Clemmons also requested that Confederate flags in the facility not be visible from outside the building. The museum was shuttered shortly after.
The museum’s closing drew both angry and celebratory responses and put a spotlight on the changing demographics of a once mostly white county that is now an almost even split between white residents and minorities.
“The words ‘stand up against hate’ have been a false battle cry for those who have refused to sit down with those of us who hold a different insight into a complex and difficult time in American history,” Anthony Pilgrim, a Henry County resident and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said at last year’s commission meeting.
Sarah Billups, a Henry County NAACP officer, told audience members at that meeting, “When you fly the Confederate flag at your home, that’s your business. Do not force me to operate under the shadow of that flag.”
Wednesday’s discussion was far more civil, with no comments from the audience and just a hint of tension among the board members.
Commissioner Blake Prince said last year’s controversy is in part responsible for the adoption of the plan. The plan the board approved Wednesday was actually commissioned in 2008 and sent to the board a year later. But the commissioners never acted on it.
“When all this came up about Nash Farms, I looked back through and found this master plan,” said Prince, who has been trying to get it on the board’s agenda for six months. “This is what (the board in 2008) bought it for. This is what they intended it to be.”
Not everyone was sold on the plan, however. Commissioner Johnny Wilson, the sole no vote on its approval, questioned the wisdom of developing a property the county does not yet own outright. Henry bought the farm in 2008 for $8 million to save it from being developed as housing. The county has been paying down debt on the property, but still owes $2.5 million.
“We still owe a great deal of money on the property itself,” he said. “We need to figure out a plan to pay for it … then we can decide what we’re going to put on it.”
Clemmons, who once told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she envisioned the park becoming a “Central Park of the South,” shot back that her district alone has been paying the debt through impact fees and that she would be happy to share the burden with her fellow commissioners if that would help.
“There have been no improvements on this park,” she said. “Let’s put a master plan out there so there is something to enjoy.”
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