By Jeff Keeling
Lifelong Detroit Tigers fan Bill Francisco figured it was worth a shot, so a couple months ago he pitched an idea to Tiger hurler and native Johnson Citian Daniel Norris: speaking at a fundraiser for Johnson City’s newest park, Jacob’s Nature Park at Sinking Creek.
Norris, who supports several environmental causes and has said he hopes to encourage big league ballparks to promote recycling and reduce the amount of waste produced during games, was game. He’ll meet a select group of 100 with VIP tickets, then speak to a larger audience the evening of Jan. 9, 2016 at East Tennessee State University’s D.P. Culp auditorium, and the proceeds from the event will help fund construction of an outdoor classroom at the park near Mountain View Elementary School.
“Daniel’s an environmentalist, and I thought he would be in support of what we’ve been trying to build at Sinking Creek,” said Francisco. The local attorney has – with a growing cadre of support – worked for several years to build the 29 acres of wetland and wooded hillsides bisected by Sinking Creek into an educational park.
Francisco hopes the fundraiser, which also will feature a live auction, an interview of Norris by WJHL-TV morning anchor Kasey Marler and a screening of “Field of Dreams,” will raise around $30,000 for one of the park’s next major features: a 20-by 30-foot outdoor classroom at the edge of the park’s largest wetland.
“Along with a bridge across Sinking Creek, this is one of the most significant things we hope to complete at the park over the next year,” Francisco said.
The fundraiser – which features an hour with Norris prior to the 6 p.m. main event for VIP ticket holders – is being co-sponsored by ETSU’s Department of Sustainability and the Boone Watershed Partnership (BWP), with proceeds going into a park development fund managed by BWP.
Francisco, whose older son Jacob died in 2004 at age 6 of an E. coli bacteria infection and who played in and around Sinking Creek, began putting funds from an annual bicycle ride in honor of Jacob into the park fund several years ago. The land, which is less than a half-mile east of Mountain View Elementary School off of King Springs Road, features several acres of wetlands that help filter stormwater and decrease pollutants in Sinking Creek, which winds through the property. Across the creek from the wetland, tree-covered ridges, now intersected by trails, rise a couple hundred feet above the floodplain.
Volunteers ranging from ETSU students and Boy Scouts to BWP members, along with city public works employees and local jail inmates, have slowly developed the property, adding trails and what so far amounts to makeshift bridge crossings to the wooded, sloping section of the park. The outdoor classroom, which will include a “living roof,” will become a central point for students and adults to learn about the abundant plant and animal life the park supports.
It’s all exciting stuff to Clark Grable, a neighbor of the Franciscos who lives on Sinking Creek Road and whose son is a friend and fellow baseball player with Josh Francisco, Bill’s son and a Science Hill sophomore. Grable said he knew just a bit about the park, but learned more in the past couple of months after he and Francisco discussed the idea of having Norris involved in a fundraiser.
Now Grable, his wife Mary and several other neighbors of the Franciscos have taken the bull by the horns are working on sponsorships, logistics, and whatever else they can to help maximize the impact of the event.
“It’s really starting to grow,” Grable said of the park’s infrastructure and potential to benefit people. “We can see it tying in with the Tweetsie Trail (the trail is less than half a mile from the park’s southwest end). After hearing the entire story of Jacob’s life and what Bill has done, I think it would be really powerful for kids to visit there and learn. It’s really going to be a phenomenal place, I believe.”
Concurrent to the classroom construction, the park should see a permanent bridge built before next spring, Francisco said. Existing BWP funds and city labor should cover that project. The first boardwalk over part of the wetlands could go in within a year as well. In the meantime, students and other volunteers continue to develop and improve trails on the ridges and slopes.
VIP tickets for the Culp Center event are $50, and include preferred seating in addition to the 5-6 p.m. hour with Norris. Tickets for the main event, beginning at 6 p.m., are $20 for adults and $10 for children and youth ages 5-17. To learn more or register, visit jacobfrancisco.com