Clarkston, GA — Friendship Forest in Clarkston has reopened with some much-needed improvements. The 18.5-acre park includes a protected wetland, bird sanctuary, a new boardwalk, paved walking paths, viewing decks and covered pavilions.
“It didn’t happen by accident. This took several years in the making, several administrations who did the work… several community members who did this to make this happen,” Mayor Beverly Burks said.
The $1.85-million renovation was approved in December 2016. Friendship Forest is located at 4380 E Ponce de Leon Ave., about half a mile from the city’s central business district.
The area was designated as a greenspace by the City Council in 2002 and can only be used for wetland protection and passive outdoor recreational activities. In 2004, the City Council used funding from the Greenspace Program to purchase another 2.84 acres that was later established as a bird sanctuary, according to the city’s website.
A few months after Keith Barker was hired as city manager in 2011, he and Larry Kaiser, an engineer with Collaborative Infrastructure Services, walked through Friendship Forest and saw a lot of opportunity.
“That’s really the beginning of the thought process of working toward an end game, which is what we have here today,” Kaiser said.
In July 2015, the city began a series of public meetings to obtain input regarding the redevelopment of the greenspace, according to a 2016 press release. The community engagement effort included creation of a steering committee and community meetings where residents described their vision for Friendship Forest.
Kaiser remembers a conversation between former Mayor Ted Terry and former City Council member Warren Hadlock at a work session about what they need to do to the park, when that should be done and how to do it. Eventually there was an agreement between them to do the master plan for the area.
The master plan, written by Ron Huffman, was completed and submitted to the City Council in January 2016.
“That’s really the genesis of the project. Once that occurred you have to find money to do it,” Kaiser said.
Construction was completed in December 2020 and the city celebrated the grand reopening on Friday, March 12. Those in attendance included residents and current and former city officials who were involved in the process. All were excited to see the completed project.
“I’m so excited because this is just the beginning,” Burks told the Tucker Observer. “I’m looking forward to using this as an opportunity to educate the community about the importance of having this type of urban forest. I’m so excited.”
As an engineer, Kaiser always wants to build a project that will benefit the community, especially for the years to come.
“I believe this is one such project and I’m very proud, very honored to be a part of that,” he said.
“If this Friendship Forest wildlife sanctuary has turned out anything like planned then it is a fantastic amenity that you have to use,” Barker added. “I am encouraging and challenging the city to make sure that this space is utilized.”
The focus now shifts to activating the forest and encouraging people to visit the mini oasis, as Burks described.
“Now that we have a forest, our sanctuary, now we need to think of how we can make it more programmatic including providing opportunities to teach children about the importance of a wildlife sanctuary and making sure that we leave a legacy for years to go on,” Burks said.
Before the city began looking at ways to improve Friendship Forest, a group of residents started cleaning it up and advocated for the city to do something. Hadlock, Martha Brown and Vinh van Glover were an integral part of that effort, Brown said.
Brown’s husband, Vinh van Glover, was the president of the city’s Planning and Zoning Board for years and he passed away a few years ago. A bench in the park now sits in honor of his memory with a plaque to commemorate him.
“I haven’t been able to even process it,” Brown said after sitting on the bench for the first time. “I guess the way I feel is sort of like I can let go now, finally, like we reached our goal both emotionally, spiritually, energetically, and environmentally. If you knew him, you would know how heartbreaking it is.”
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