Jason Walser, Executive Director of the Blanche and Julian Robertson Family Foundation, and I met at the historic Bell Tower in downtown Salisbury in a tiny corner of a large rectangle of expanse. We stood inside, sheltered from the day’s sweltering sun. We peered into the tower, a bell swinging stories above us, and reverberating all around us.
Jason showed me around the site of the Bell Tower Green and answered questions about the $10 million park project. He sits on the Board of Directors for the Bell Tower Green, the leadership and planning arm of the Bell Tower Green, Inc. – a 501(c)(3) public charity. There are 12 volunteer board members from throughout the county who are leading this endeavor to create a beautiful common space in downtown Salisbury for all to enjoy.
“Oh wow…” I began, but did not finish. Jason had moved on to show me something else! We raced down the steps to the bricks below, and he directed me to follow the bell tower to the ground, as if a ramp were erected. Then he invited me to look out across the space, now a parking lot.
“Imagine.” He narrated feature after feature, painting a vivid picture of a wedding on the lawn, birds chirping in the trees. I heard his words, but as if from somewhere far away. Mostly I stood transfixed. Feet rooted to the soft ground beneath me. Truly imagining what this land will be. What it will become to generations of Rowan County residents and visitors. “Imagine” invites us into the future. It invites us into all of possibility. This was exactly where I wanted to begin.
Becoming a Reality: Big Celebration on Aug. 3
A public celebration to begin construction is planned for August 3 at 10 a.m.
The questions that I was most excited to ask had to do with everything I couldn’t see or even imagine. These questions had to do with how this all came about. I asked Jason what was “the light bulb moment” when someone first said, “Let’s make this!”
“Were you there?” I asked. “Who else was? What was the discussion like?”
He tells this story: “In the fall of 2015, the Blanche and Julian Robertson Foundation Board was asked to consider taking the lead on the project after negotiations between the owner, Maxwell Chambers Trust, and the City of Salisbury had come to a stalemate. This was a radically different project from anything that the Foundation had undertaken before, and the Board of Directors was cautious. We agreed to assume a one-year ‘Option to Purchase’ so that no other entity could buy the property until we could decide if there was a willingness from the community to create such a park.”
A Viable Downtown Park
“The ‘light bulb moment’ came when Robertson Family Foundation board member Fred Stanback and his wife Alice pledged $1 million to build a quality park at the site. Fred said, “There are no significant green spaces. This is probably the only place where we could have a viable downtown park, and Alice and I would like to help make it happen.”
“After that moment, the Foundation decided to move forward with creating a new 501(c)(3) public charity which would have the expertise to build the best park possible. The new organization created to design, fundraise, and oversee the development of the park was named Bell Tower Green, Inc.”
From Idea to Endeavor
Another Bell Tower Green board member, Meredith Abramson, and I connected by phone to talk about how she has witnessed this park shift from idea to endeavor. “I’ve been part of this for three years now,” she said. “It is a huge honor! It has been quite an adventure, a journey. We are all so excited about how this park will change the landscape of downtown Salisbury. Three summers ago, Jason showed us a picture of Salisbury from above — a drone picture. Pretty soon when we look at [this same area] from above, we’ll have an entire city block that is green. It is for the community. And there are ‘rooms’ within the park that make us excited because we’re trying to [reach] all members of our community. If you want to be active, there are places for that. If you just want to pause and be still, there is a place for that, too.”
Variety, Opportunity, & Choice
Yes. It is clear in the descriptions that Jason seemed to wave into place that we can expect variety, opportunity, and choice. As he and I walked across an area now tangled with tall grasses, Jason described the capacity of the Green to serve as a host for arts and entertainment options, like outdoor movies, concerts, and other programming on the lawn. There will be a one-acre grass lawn with ADA approved pathways and other surfaces throughout. There will be benches so that people can get lunch or a library book and head out for some fresh air. There will be a curved granite wall created from Rowan County materials. A creative play area, as well as a water wall, will attract young eyes to see something new. And an on-site restaurant with outdoor seating will be located in what once was the Wren House restaurant. The weekly Salisbury Farmers Market will return to the space too which has temporarily been relocated to520 South Main Street.
A great deal of programming will come. Yoga on the lawn, story hour for children, and so forth. These activities will become rituals for individuals, punctuating their weeks. Anchoring them to what is next.
Additionally, the community can look forward to enjoying the space for holiday traditions, including New Year’s Eve, Fourth of July, and other holidays and festivals.
I asked Jason about rental scooters and bikes and was told that the Board of Directors is exploring these amenities as an option for expanding transportation for all individuals. “The Bell Tower Green would like to encourage connections in our community as much as possible, and all public transportation options are on the table,” he said.
Communities Coming Together
As we stood on the lawn wrapping up our tour, I continued to be in awe of the level of detail and thoughtfulness across the Green. Jason shared with me that from the outset, all those involved in this project have dreamed of it becoming a place where all Rowan County citizens from all walks of life and communities come together. These words occur to me not just as a mission, but as a charge. They are something electric, alive. Something becoming. The words occur to me as a duty to serve the public in ways that will create more meaning and connection in each of our lives. And what greater aim exists? What more profound ways can we impact one another?
Paul Fisher, Chairman of the Fundraising Committee, has observed this about the project thus far: “This has truly been a community project. There have been anonymous donations; donations from New York, Florida, and Nevada; donations big and small from towns throughout Rowan County. It truly has been miraculous to see the entire community come together for a common purpose like this.”
How can residents engage?
Mark your calendars for the public Ground Breaking is set for August 3, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Meet at the base of the Bell Tower, in an area called the “Bell Tower Lawn.” If construction fencing is already in place, the event will shift slightly. Cheerwine is sponsoring the event with complimentary Cheerwine and water for everyone!
The Bell Tower Green Grand Opening is scheduled to occur 18 months after groundbreaking. Dates will be determined by the weather during the construction period. Updates will be made on the website here.
During the construction period, practice patience for traffic disruptions from time to time and focus on the future instead of an immediate obstacle.
Private funding is sought to build sections of the park. Donations of all sizes are accepted and appreciated. To donate, visit the website here.