My Turn, Jason Walser: With one dream realized, new ones begin

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 3, 2021

By Jason Walser

With the opening of Bell Tower Green this week, Salisbury and Rowan County are realizing the dreams that many community leaders and residents have had for us for many years.

I hope we prove ourselves worthy of the investment that so many have made in us.

To say that I have been privileged to be a part of this transformational project is an understatement. This is truly a special place to live, and today I could not be more proud of, and happy for, our community.

I am reminded of the adage that our late friend and teacher “Mr. Paul” (Fisher) would frequently share about our calling to plant trees under whose shade we may never sit. “Mr. Paul” died nearly a year ago, and while it seems unfair that he was not able to see the opening of the park he labored on for countless hours, I am certain that his dream has been fulfilled. That is because he wanted this lovely park for his beloved community, not for himself.

And that is the case for so many people who have literally and figuratively planted the trees that allowed us to have this truly special park today.

This week, it seems appropriate to reflect on all the stars that had to line up for us to be able to celebrate this gift.

I think of Maxwell Chambers purchasing this block for the benefit of his church and tying it up in a trust for more than 150 years so that it was not subdivided. I am reminded that even after the First Presbyterian Church decided it was willing to part with the property, it then had to receive the blessing of Davidson College, which also had an interest in the land.

I think about how fortunate we are that the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation was able to step in to buy the property, and was then able to launch a new nonprofit (“Bell Tower Green, Inc.”) to shepherd the dream of this park to reality. Not every community is blessed to have such a foundation to play this role, and it is only because of the incredible generosity of the Robertson family and their belief in us that we had a vehicle to help craft the dream of this park.

Typically, a high-quality urban park like the one that has been built for us would be built with taxpayer funds, but we all knew the timing was not right for the city to undertake such a heavy lift in 2015. And while Rowan County and the State of North Carolina did provide significant support for the park, it was never realistic for us to expect for them to take the lead on this dream of a first class Downtown Salisbury park.

Thus, community leaders stepped up and undertook the responsibility of raising $12 million for a park that all thought was worthy of our citizens. More than 1,000 individual donors, foundations and corporations “planted trees” by investing in our park in a meaningful way.

This is truly remarkable. How many other communities our size would have been able pull off something like this? I submit that there aren’t many.

Lastly, but critically, the city of Salisbury provided significant funding, staff support and the commitment to care for this “high finish” park for perpetuity.

While the city of Salisbury will manage the park into the future, it seems to me that we all have an obligation to live up to our end of the bargain. Many people have planted trees for us, and some of these leaders are no longer with us. We owe a debt of gratitude to many whose names most will never know.

And we now find ourselves as the caretakers of this amenity for those who will come after us.

The park is open, but it is not finished.

In the near term, work will continue on unfinished construction elements. And dying plants and trees will be replaced in the coming weeks.

Also, “Bell Tower Green, Inc.” will continue to function and raise private and charitable funds to support the park, much as the Hurley Park Foundation supports its namesake park.

Critically, the work now falls on all of us to “cultivate community” in this very special “commons” that we now have. To recreate and celebrate together in a respectful and caring and welcoming way.

We all need to work to ensure that the park stays beautiful, clean, and safe. We must be vigilant and individually and collectively committed to stepping up when we see a need.

We can all commit to suggesting programming and showing up for activities. And we all can engage in the political process to remind future council persons how important this place is for our economy, our pride and our quality of life.

The work is not yet done. Trees have been planted for us by those who came before us. Now we must figuratively plant trees for our children and grandchildren. We must prove ourselves worthy of the faith that our benefactors have placed in us.

And we must keep dreaming about how we can help the park and this community continue to be all that they can be.

Jason Walser is the vice president of Bell Tower Green, Inc, and Executive Director of The Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation.