City officials hope to ease friction between Erlanger hospital and residents of the neighborhood around nearby Lincoln Park by taking back control of the historic five-acre Chattanooga park by the end of this year.
A proposed land swap that would return the property to the city has been delayed because of protracted negotiations with the Tennessee Department of Transportation over a plan to extend Central Avenue past the park boundary to Riverside Drive, said Donna Williams, the city's director of economic and community development.
But Williams said she hopes everything will be decided by the end of December and the land swap can be made final.
Whether that will resolve the decades-long sparring between the 3,000-employee hospital complex and the small, predominantly black neighborhood of about 100 homes nestled in its shadow is not clear, however. Residents of the Lincoln Park neighborhood have battled with Erlanger officials since the 1980s, when the neighborhood association was formed in response to fears the hospital was buying up land in the area for expansion.
During segregation, Lincoln Park was a center of recreational activities in Chattanooga's black community. Legendary black baseball players including Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson played there on Negro League teams.
But after desegregation, the park drew smaller crowds and the city eventually swapped the Lincoln Park land to Erlanger in exchange for property the hospital system owned elsewhere.
Since that time, Erlanger has allowed residents to use the park for picnics and occasional neighborhood meetings, but has made clear the land is still its property. Erlanger has required the neighborhood association to purchase liability insurance for any events held in the park if more than 10 people will attend.
In the latest flare-up, members of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association and supporters showed up unannounced Monday morning at a public meeting of the Erlanger board of trustees' management and board evaluation committee to accuse the hospital of discrimination for barring residents from the park site on Oct. 1.
Residents said Project South, an activist group that encourages low-income residents to organize to oppose racism and poverty, had asked Erlanger for permission to hold a rally at the Lincoln Park site, with 400 to 500 people expected to attend. Erlanger officials said they told the group two weeks earlier that they would not be allowed to use the property. The site includes a softball field, several tennis courts and a handful of picnic tables and barbecue grills.
Tiffany Rankins, secretary of the neighborhood group, denied Erlanger's claim, saying the group found out it had been turned down only a few days before the rally was scheduled.
A group of people showed up at the site on Oct. 1 and discovered yellow tape designating it as a construction site, and Erlanger security officers barred the group from the property, neighborhood association President Vannice Hughley said.
Making things worse, the neighborhood association members told the board, on Oct. 2 a group of young white men and women played kickball and bicycle polo in the park with no interference from security guards.
In a video of the Monday meeting posted on Facebook, Hughley accused Erlanger of discrimination and of failing to consult local residents before changing policies affecting use of the property.
Erlanger COO Gregg Gentry reminded the group that because the property is owned by the hospital, it is liable for any events that take place there.
At Monday's hour-long meeting, Gentry explained Erlanger has been using the property as a place for construction workers to park. He conceded that security guards may not have been given clear directions as to who is allowed to use the property.
But he said he had concerns that, while the hospital has been willing to allow residents to use the property for family get-togethers, recent requests for access involved larger groups, or groups with a political focus.
But board member Michael Griffin apologized to the group for what happened Oct. 1, and the board promised to hold a special meeting with local residents to discuss issues affecting their access to the property.
Erlanger's board of trustees already has voted to swap the Lincoln Park site with the city for land in Alton Park.
Williams said once the land swap becomes final, the land will be turned over to the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit group that has helped the city develop several parks, and that group will work with Lincoln Park residents to develop a plan for a new park on the site, open to all.
But that may not end the dispute with the neighborhood.
Rankins said Thursday that if the city does get clearance from the state transportation department to go ahead with the Central Avenue extension, she plans to file a Title VI civil rights complaint to block construction, arguing that city officials ignored local residents in planning the roadway. Title VI allows legal action if there is discrimination in projects funded with federal funds, such as most highway construction.