The meeting started out as a listening session with city officials wanting to hear from the public what they want in a parks system.
Unfortunately, what officials heard had more to do with the condition of the parks than the parks themselves. And one of the main gripes was litter.
To hear it from park visitors and some of the Parks and Recreation Department staff, there is so much trash in the parks as to make them uninviting. And it seems to go beyond just tossing down a paper cup or leaving a bag of picnic items sitting there for someone else to deal with. No, the problems that people reported were litter and then some. It's as if people are purposely going to the park to dump trash, some have said.
"If you go to Regional Park right now and you go on the backside of the lake, there is enough garbage to fill up the convention center room," said John Ashcraft, one member of the standing-room-only crowd that came to talk about the parks. "We have got the best fishing there is in Arkansas. All of these people want to come to Pine Bluff, but they're scared -- scared they are going to get their stuff stolen and they don't like the trash."
Ashcraft made a good point. Pine Bluff has a lot of natural beauty, but that beauty, in many cases, is totally negated by other factors. Crime or the perception of crime is one, and litter, which, right or wrong, speaks volumes about our community.
The Rev. Jesse Turner wrote an opinion piece recently wondering aloud if one of the parks that he has worked hard to keep clean should even remain open, mainly because in a single day, he said, the park can go from clean to trashed out. Why have a park if that is how much it is appreciated by visitors, he asked.
There is the part of this wherein we all wring our hands and shake our heads and wonder why it is that people litter and do so with such abandon. But that exercise, of course, won't resolve the problem.
One idea was to stagger the shifts of some of the parks employees. Mainly they work during the week. But the parks get slammed on the weekends, so it was suggested that one or more of them could make the rounds on the weekends to help keep the trash receptacles emptied.
That's a start.
Certainly, there were other ideas offered up at the meeting that concerned things other than litter. Someone wanted an archery range, another wanted the ballfields put back into shape so they could be used. And one of the most encouraging parts of the evening was that young people showed up to speak their minds. We can't remember the last time that happened.
Said Alderman Ivan Whitfield: "I thought us old people were going to get in here and spend money for the young people without talking to the young people. I'm so glad that young individuals did get a chance to speak. We heard you tonight."
Obviously, there is a lot of interest in our parks, and parks officials were listening to the concerns and suggestions. Perhaps, the city could hold similar meetings quarterly and in the meantime, capture some of that youthful vigor by creating a citizen's advisory panel that could monitor progress. That would help keep the focus on the problem as solutions are sought.
Just opening the door to these subjects puts the city in a better place than it was in. Let's keep that interest up and going strong until we have a parks system we would be proud to invite outside visitors to. And then let's never let things go back to how they were before.