Negotiations between the French Family Foundation, city leaders and the Edmond Fine Arts Institute regarding the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park have come to a breaking point, attorney Todd McKinnis told the Edmond Alliance at its quarterly luncheon Wednesday.

“As of right now, I’d say it’s on life support,” McKinnis said. “It’ll be dead in two weeks if something doesn’t change dramatically.”

Among other issues, McKinnis expressed concern with the city’s proposal to expand the composition of the Park Conservancy Trust by adding two trustees appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Edmond City Council. The PCT, entrusted with building parks for the benefit of the community, currently is made up of five trustees — two council members and three community members.

At Wednesday’s luncheon, fliers were placed on tables with contact information for each member of the Edmond City Council. During his presentation, McKinnis took aim at city staff and city manager Scot Rigby, who has faced criticism from former Edmond mayors before.

“There are some people that believe there should be a change,” McKinnis said. “I’m not advocating anything except to say I think you should communicate to the people that are on the leadership, because I don’t believe they hear from the ‘Yes’ people.”

On Thursday, Rigby — who said he has not been involved in negotiations with French’s team up to this point — called assertions that he is holding up the project “inaccurate.” Ward 2 Councilman Barry Moore and city attorney Madeline Sawyer have handled direct negotiations about the project with French’s team and the Edmond Fine Arts Institute.

“I want the park to happen,” Rigby said. “Just overall as the city manager, whether it was me or somebody else in the chair, you have to provide a review of any proposal — whether it’s this park or anything else — to council.”

Rigby said city staff, Moore, Sawyer and Ward 3 Councilwoman Christin Mugg are meeting internally about a document related to the initial construction of the project, which has faced stops and starts like a caution-filled NASCAR race. There will later be a second document discussed regarding post-construction maintenance and operations, Rigby said.

Asked about the proposal of changing the PCT’s makeup, Mayor Darrell Davis said that point is still being negotiated. He then encouraged French’s team to speak with the city’s negotiation team regarding any questions on the proposal.

“Our teams are negotiating,” Davis said. “So, if Todd or Josh have a request, they need to send that to our negotiation team and tell them that.”

Josh Moore, a former city councilman and a member of the Park Conservancy Trust, said Wednesday that French has put his best offer on the table and that it’s time for the city to take the discussion to a public meeting.

“We believe it’s at a point that it’s time to take it to a full City Council discussion,” Moore said. “I truly believe everybody wants it in one way or the other. The citizens of Edmond want this, no doubt (…) but it’s time to get to a meeting and either move on or don’t.”

Asked if the project could be placed on an Edmond City Council agenda in May, Rigby and Davis both said they did not know. Rigby said there are still internal discussions regarding the initial construction document, but he reiterated his commitment to finding an agreement.

“We want to find a solution to this and have a park,” Rigby said. “And it’s got to be mutually beneficial for all parties, because we all want the park successful long term. So, we encourage all the parties to stay at the table and talk about these things.”

An unusual web of legal relationships

Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park
David Chapman and Clay Coldiron listen to Todd McKinnis during the Edmond Alliance’s quarterly luncheon at Kickingbird Golf Club on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Joe Tomlinson)

For years, longtime Edmond resident Hal French has sought to build the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park at the northwest corner of East Second Street and North Coltrane Road.

While the mix of proposed funding for the entirety of the project has not been fully clear, French has ultimately proposed donating the property to the Park Conservancy Trust, for which the City of Edmond is the beneficiary. An oil, gas and real estate entrepreneur, French purchased the 62-acre parcel for $4.5 million in December 2021.

After receiving site plan approval on the project at a tense May 2023 council meeting, French told city leaders in June that he and his foundation were no longer pursuing the park owing to frustrations with city staff. However, late last year, French returned to the negotiating table by way of McKinnis and Moore.

While the Edmond Fine Arts Institute was not involved with the project when it received site plan approval, EFAI helped usher the parties back to the negotiating table. EFAI proposed building a $10 million to $15 million structure on one acre of the park to house its operations and programming.

“It just started making sense for us to be a part of that and kind of be the curators for the park,” said Shannon Price, executive director of EFAI. “We could oversee what was going on out there and make sure that property matched the vision of the donor.”

Price said if the parties move forward with the project, a capital campaign would be launched to raise donations for EFAI’s building on site. If the project comes to fruition, EFAI would not vacate its current building on Edwards Street, she said.

The situation has pitted a variety of Edmond leaders against one another, and McKinnis finds himself squarely in the middle of negotiations. While he also represents French, McKinnis and Andrew Price are representing EFAI. Andrew Price is the son of Shannon Price, the director of EFAI.

With Valley of the Horse installed, Park Conservancy Trust issues surface

Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park revival
Earthmoving work continues Monday, Dec. 18, 2023, at the site of the proposed Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park off Second Street west of Coltrane Road in Edmond, Oklahoma. (Michael McNutt)

While concerns have simmered behind the scenes this year, progress was made in January when the Edmond Visual Arts Commission installed the “Valley of the Horse,” otherwise known as the “Valle del Caballo,” at the northwest corner of East Second Street and North Coltrane Road. The spectacle of the massive sculpture’s installation reignited excitement for residents who hope to see the project come to life.

Still, tensions that erupted last June are still burning between the city and French’s team. McKinnis called changing the PCT’s makeup a “non-negotiable.”

“It’s just a trust issue both ways,” McKinnis said. “Randel (Shadid) and Hal (French) don’t trust the city. The city with Scot Rigby don’t trust not controlling everything.”

Shadid, a former Edmond mayor and attorney who initially represented French throughout the planning process, is the chairman of the PCT. Josh Moore and Communities Foundation of Oklahoma executive director Teresa Rose serve as the PCT’s community members, while Mugg and Ward 1 Councilman Tom Robins are the PCT’s elected officials.

In an interview after Wednesday’s meeting of the Edmond Alliance — a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization founded by developers to communicate with the public about Edmond issues — McKinnis asked why there is a desire to change the PCT’s composition because the city ultimately approves its budget.

“At the end of the day, the budget for the trust is approved by the city,” McKinnis said. “So, if you control the purse strings, you control the group, so why do you need to micromanage and change the structure of the trust?”

McKinnis also voiced frustration with city staff asking French to pay permit fees throughout the process, which Shadid labeled as a matter of principle more than a financial burden. McKinnis also said city staff has asked French to build a fence around the site’s water pump station.

French has designated $20 million to put toward the project and has secured significant commitments for “institutional philanthropic dollars,” McKinnis said. He also said French wants to create an endowment to fund the park’s maintenance in perpetuity by designating proceeds from the retail sites proposed for the west side of the property. If built, the development is expected to cost $60 million at a minimum, Shadid said.

Additionally, the city has proposed a $10 million commitment for project construction costs, McKinnis said Wednesday. While Rigby did not specify an amount, he confirmed that the city is offering some funding.

“I think the city has already indicated we are open to a significant financial investment for the initial aspect of the park,” Rigby said. “We think it’s a very bold offer for us.”

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Barry Moore: ‘We are going to continue to work’

Edmond housing study
Ward 2 Edmond City Council member Barry Moore speaks to attendees during the Edmond City Council meeting Monday, Aug. 14, 2023. (Screenshot)

During Wednesday’s luncheon, McKinnis said French has been frustrated by what he considers a lack of gratitude for his efforts to develop the park.

“He said yesterday there has not been a single person in the entire four years from the City of Edmond who has reached out to him to express any sort of appreciation or acknowledgement (…) except in the last six months, (and that was Councilman) Barry Moore,” McKinnis said. “So, Barry Moore has been carrying the torch, and I believe others might, but the staff and specifically Scot Rigby only sees this entire project as a liability.”

Asked for comment on his involvement with the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park negotiations, Moore sent a statement praising Mugg’s involvement:

Councilwoman Mugg, the city manager, city attorney and I have been meeting weekly about Uncommon Ground. It’s a lot to cover and sort out. I’m appreciative of Ms. Mugg’s opinions, her input is valuable, and I have great respect for her leadership. We are certainly grateful for the kindness and generosity of those associated with the park.

We are going to continue to work, discuss and hopefully come to an agreement sooner rather than later. Let me be clear, the work we are doing is important, and we all want what is best for the arts community, the citizens of Edmond and our city. Good things don’t come easy, but good things do happen with hard work and a willingness to work together.

Mugg also provided a statement regarding the project’s remaining issues:

I am hopeful that all parties can come to an agreement on the remaining issues to have a successful multi-party collaboration resulting in a wonderful addition to the Edmond community. It is so very important for all members of the community and interested parties to know that the City of Edmond is very committed to supporting this project.

This is evidenced by the approval of the site plan with eight requested variances a year ago, commitments to surrounding infrastructure, and the time, funds and human resources that have been and are continuing to be dedicated to finding a mutually acceptable arrangement. There are very complicated legal issues involved in the project and a lot of long-term consequences and costs that will be incurred by the City of Edmond. I am committed to being a good steward of city funds in both the short and long term. I would ask for the community’s support and patience as we work through these very consequential issues.

Rigby encouraged all parties to stay at the table and find a solution.

“We want to continue to have those discussions, and we hope they would, too, to fulfill their ability to move forward with the park that was approved last May,” Rigby said.