FOREST PARK — During a lengthy town hall meeting Thursday night, Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart let residents know about the city’s plans for the future, days before qualifying starts for his office and two ward seats.
Department heads Angela Redding and Al Wiggins took the floor to brief residents on ongoing projects and Lockhart explained some of the history behind the city’s Development Authority.
Fred Bryant also updated residents on the city’s ongoing plan to acquire Fort Gillem.
Redding talked about getting a $1.17 million matching federal grant for projects that include Fort Gillem and the State Farmers Market. She presented photos of the Main Street project that includes brick paving, a fountain and decorative light and sign posts. Residents can buy a $35 commemorative brick engraved with a personal message to have installed around the fountain, she said.
Redding also updated residents on sidewalk projects that emphasize the safety of students walking to school. One resident, who was not identified, didn’t seem impressed by the sidewalks.
“All the sidewalks are beautiful but they aren’t bringing in business,” she said. “Most people using the sidewalks aren’t working and sometimes they aren’t using the sidewalks at all.”
The comment drew a laugh but was indicative of the big question of residents — when will Forest Park get new businesses? Wiggins talked about three commercial projects in the works, including one at 1105 Main St. capable of providing space for eight-12 businesses.
“There will be eight to 12 tenant spaces and it’s all first-rate construction,” said Wiggins. “I’m very impressed.”
The other two developments are convenience stores, one at 868 Forest Parkway and the other at 4192 Jonesboro Road.
“The one on Forest Parkway is being built as a convenience store but it can be used for something else later on,” he said. “Nice craftsmanship and materials.”
As head of the city’s Planning, Building and Zoning Department, Wiggins is responsible for making sure codes are enforced and new construction fits in with the surroundings. He said his department is re-writing the city’s sign ordinance and updating the comprehensive plan.
However, he said he’s most excited about a housing stock study.
“We’re looking at the number of vacant homes and renters versus owner-occupied homes,” Wiggins said. “We have so many rental properties and they’re fine, they have their place, but we need home ownership.”
Wiggins said the city is looking to impose a tax on vacant houses so it can use that revenue to pay to demolish the structures.
Bryant, who is executive director of the Forest Park/Fort Gillem Implementation Local Redevelopment Authority, talked about the former U.S. Army base and its environmental issues.
“Are there environmental issues?” he said. “Yes, on every former U.S. base, there are environmental issues. Petroleum leaks into the ground from vehicles. Is it a bad enough problem that makes redevelopment unable to happen? Absolutely not.”
Bryant said more than 70 percent of the property is not contaminated. He said talk of putting 787 acres into a federal “superfund” is unnecessary.
“There is no need to put us under a superfund site,” said Bryant. “We have plans for 7 million square feet of land in the form of business parks, commercial and industrial development. This deal is going to move forward and we hope to close as early as this year.”
Bryant’s next comments drew applause from residents.
“We’re talking to a company coming in that will bring in 900 jobs,” he said. “We can’t require them to hire only Forest Park residents but they will be bringing in jobs.”
Lockhart touched on the recent controversy over who approved a $35,000 settlement to ousted Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams. During Monday’s meeting, he indicated he would be investigating who authorized the payout. Thursday night, it appeared that it was still an issue, with Lockhart pointing to former City Manager John Parker and former City Attorney Robert Mack as the sources of the approval.
“I thought we addressed that but there are several lingering questions,” he said. “I never saw an offer come across my desk and I’ve asked council if they’d seen or approved a payment or offer. They all said no.”
Lockhart told residents that the attorney for the insurance company told him that Parker gave the authority. Parker said Monday night he didn’t have the authority to approve such a settlement and that he did not approve one for Williams. Mack, who didn’t attend either meeting, backed him up.
“John Parker did not authorize any settlement for Karen-Brandee Williams,” he said when contacted by Clayton News Daily. “He didn’t have the authority to do it. He could only recommend one way or the other to mayor and council.”
The newspaper has filed an open records request for correspondence about the settlement and is awaiting a response from City Manager Frank Brandon.
Lockhart said the incident is an example of why Mack no longer works for the city.
“Forest Park now has a judgment against it in a case involving the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he said. “We needed lawyers that would communicate with their clients.”
He also said Brandon is “competent” and “up to the task” of running the city.
“We’ve got Frank Brandon on board and he’s overseen personnel for decades,” said Lockhart. “He knows how to make due when times are tough and he knows how to make things stretch. He also knows how to write grants. Mr. Brandon was the right man for the job.”