By Jeff Keeling
It wasn’t a baseball Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Daniel Norris kept handling during a visit to Jacob’s Nature Park at Sinking Creek last week. Instead, the Johnson City native frequently brought his Canon 5D Mark III camera into shooting mode as he toured the 28 acres of wetlands and woodlands with Bill Francisco, the driving force behind its park designation.
Saturday night at ETSU’s D.P. Culp Center, Norris – whose primary cause as a major leaguer is environmental sustainability – will be the featured guest at a “Support the Dream” fundraiser for Jacob’s Park. After he and his father, David, spending more than an hour touring with Francisco and his son Josh, Norris said the mostly privately funded park is something he can really get behind.
Proceeds from Saturday’s event (learn more at jacobfrancisco.com), which also includes a live auction and an interview between Norris and WJHL’s Kasey Marler, will help fund an outdoor classroom on the edge of one of the property’s two main wetland areas.
“I think that’s a really cool idea,” Norris said of the park, which focuses on environmental education, and particularly awareness of water pollution. “Just awareness more than anything is huge. A lot of times it’ll go in one ear and out the other for a lot of people, but this is actually doing something about it, and it’s really respectable and really important.”
During his visit Norris, who will talk with and present autographed baseballs to those attending a 5 p.m. VIP session, didn’t only learn about Sinking Creek’s pollution problems and about all the great chances park visitors will have to learn about wildlife, plants and ecosystems at the park just off of King Springs Road.
He also heard the story of Francisco’s quest to educate people about the dangers of e coli bacteria, whether food or water borne, a quest itself borne of a family tragedy. Jacob Francisco, the older of Francisco’s two sons, died in 2004 at age 6 of complications from an e coli infection. The park was named in his honor in 2015, roughly five years after Francisco turned the focus of his work in honor of Jacob to the Sinking Creek property.
“His vision with it all has become a reality, and it’s really relatable to just kind of like how a lot of people told him to just give up, it’s not going to happen, it’s too big of a project, and then sure enough it’s coming to life,” Norris said. “It’s how I kind of feel with my baseball career. A lot of people told me ‘no,’ and to do something else. He’s doing a great job and obviously the cause is great, so it’s encouraging.”
The park as Norris toured it still lacked its major elements of infrastructure. Though as an environmental park it’s unlikely to be very developed, it will contain three major, important features. If Norris comes back for a visit after the 2016 baseball season, two of those may be largely complete.
The first is the outdoor classroom to which Saturday’s fundraiser is contributing. The roofed, unwalled space at the edge of a large wetland will offer interpretive signage, a “living roof,” and a chance for students and others to learn about the importance of not just wetlands, but all the other ecosystems contained within the park.
The second feature will make it much easier for explorers to climb the forested ridge that rises to more than 200 feet in elevation above the creek, passing along volunteer-created trails through shagbark hickory, beech, buckeye and a variety of other native hardwoods. Where Norris had to cross an 8-by-8-inch span of milled wood while holding onto a rope to get to the creek’s far side, plans call for a sturdy, ADA-accessible footbridge at the park’s downstream end.
Plans are submitted, and a skilled crew of inmates supervised by a foreman from Johnson City’s Public Works Department is expected to start building the 100-foot ramp leading to the bridge, and the 35-foot span itself, later this winter. Funds for work conducted at Jacob’s Park are in a separate account with Boone Watershed Partnership (BWP), one of many partners that have helped bring the park to its current level of completion. Francisco believes the BWP fund currently has enough money in it to fund the bridge.
The final major expense will be several hundred feet of boardwalk that will allow visitors to traverse the ecologically sensitive wetlands themselves without damaging the habitat. Funds continue to be raised through the annual Jacob’s Bike Ride and Awareness Walk each April, and through private donations to the BWP fund. But Charlie Stahl, a Johnson City Assistant City Manager who sits on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and has watched Francisco’s efforts to develop the park from the beginning, said he sees it coming to full fruition through a variety of funding sources and volunteer laborers.
“It’s been the tears and labor of Bill and a variety of volunteers and supporters that have brought this project from a vision and a hope and a dream of Bill’s and his family’s into reality,” Stahl said. “It’s very satisfying for me as a member of the park board to see this coming to reality.”
Stahl said the city will fund continuing operation and maintenance of the park, and that public funding availability for its development – including possibly the boardwalks – isn’t out of the question. He also sees continued involvement from East Tennessee State University, the Tennessee departments of environment and conservation and agriculture, the BWP and others.
“It’s a unique feature, and I think we’re going to see more interest from a cross-section of agencies, public, semi-public and private, than some other city properties, just because of what it’s become and it’s becoming. It’s exciting.”
To visit Jacob’s Nature Park, take King Springs Road 0.6 miles east from its intersection with Legion Street (four-way stop sign) and park on the right just past 1214 King Springs.