Neighbors in Lincoln Park say aide to Chattanooga mayor threatened to pull plug on park

Neighbors in Lincoln Park say aide to Chattanooga mayor threatened to pull plug on park

December 14th, 2013 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

The Lincoln Park neighborhood residents say they weren't included in the decision making process that led to Central Avenue being extended through their neighborhood.

Photo by C. B. Schmelter/Times Free Press.

Neighbors in Lincoln Park say a top city official threatened that Mayor Andy Berke might pull the plug on an initiative to save their historic park if they don't stop complaining.

Tiffany Rankins, secretary of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, said Chief Operating Officer Jeff Cannon warned in calls and emails that complaints could jeopardize plans to save historic Lincoln Park as the city moves to extend Central Avenue to connect with Riverside Drive.

In a July email response to a request for information by Rankins, Cannon wrote: "I'm sure the mayor will be disappointed that you don't feel he is working with you guys. He is making a lot of enemies as he tries to protect the integrity of Lincoln Park. Finding out that you guys are not satisfied might be the tipping point."

The letter resurfaced Thursday when the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association filed a complaint with the mayor's office. Residents said they have been left out of making decisions on plans to build the Central Avenue extension and to preserve the park that served the black community during segregation. In its heyday, Lincoln Park included an amusement park, swimming area and a site for Negro League baseball games.

Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone, said in an email Friday that the residents have been included and Cannon has had three individual meetings with Rankins along with a neighborhood meeting and countless phone calls since June.

She said Cannon's email wasn't a threat. She cited Cannon's response in the same July email that said: "If you want to meet to offer your displeasure it might be best to do it formally through the neighborhood association."

Cannon responded to a request for comment with an emailed statement saying: "As an Administration, we are committed to inclusion and diversity as well as community engagement."

Councilman Moses Freeman, who represents the Lincoln Park neighborhood, said the mayor's office has been working hard to secure the land for the residents. He also defended Cannon's response.

"It's a frustrating process when you're negotiating on behalf of another group and they don't give you the leeway to do it," Freeman said, talking about the email Cannon sent.

But neighborhood members wonder whether complaints are what got them this far in the first place.

Neighborhood Association President Vannice Hughley said this week that the mayor didn't originally engage the community in May until five days after neighborhood leaders complained to the local Transportation Planning Organization about plans for the road extension.

In the May 23 complaint, Chattanooga Organized for Action President Perrin Lance, on behalf of the neighborhood association, said through the use of federal highway dollars for the extension, the city violated a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This section specifically prohibits the use of federal funds that in any way promotes racial discrimination.

"Leaders of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association contend that their community was kept ill informed and excluded from the decision making processes that have resulted in the decision to extend Central Avenue through Lincoln Park," the complaint read. "The City failed to consider the site's local, regional, and national historic significance, especially as it relates to the African American community."

On May 28, Berke announced a coalition to preserve the historic park, promising that the residents would have input.

At the May 30 meeting of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, officials said the city had identified a plan to communicate and include community associates within the project. TPO officials said the city had committed to report back on its findings and outreach activities before the funds become available in fiscal 2017.

In August, Berke announced to the neighborhood that the park would belong to the community once again. His pledge was made before the Erlanger Health System board of trustees voted in October to swap five acres of the park to the city for another piece of land in Alton Park.

The swap hasn't been finalized, but Stone said she's heard from the city attorney's office that it could be completed by the middle of next year.

After the Erlanger board approved the land swap, Cannon met with the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association in October. He presented a plan for the road that will begin eight feet from the park and will be two lanes, but said several possible routes are being discussed.

But Lincoln Park leaders later complained about the plan, saying they wanted to see multiple versions and be included in the decision-making process. The Times Free Press reported on the neighborhood's complaint on Nov. 6, citing concerns that the city didn't negotiate for the entire tract where the park once lay.

Rankins said she got a call that morning from Cannon, who she said lectured her for speaking out.

"He said he doesn't feel like he can move forward since we assassinated his character," Rankins recalled.

Stone said that the project hasn't been stalled, but didn't respond to questions about the conversation Cannon had with Rankins.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.