Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park agreements
Construction vehicles sit on land cleared for the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park in Edmond, Oklahoma, on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023. (Michael McNutt)

When news broke that the Edmond City Council had approved the site plan, preliminary plat, final plat and eight variances for the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park during a grueling four-hour meeting in May 2023, Edmondites widely celebrated the project.

“It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but we’re pleased,” Randel Shadid said after the marathon meeting. An attorney who formerly served as Edmond’s mayor from 1991 to 1995, Shadid represented park donor Hal French throughout the planning process.

Just 10 days later, French notified Edmond leaders that he and his foundation were no longer pursuing the multi-million dollar sculpture park, citing frustrations with city staff. As the project purportedly cratered, a variety of community members were pitted against one another.

Worth about $1.5 million altogether, nearly 40 art pieces planned for the park were placed in storage. However, if all goes as planned over the next three weeks, those sculptures might find sunlight soon.

Today, one year and one day after the project’s site plan was approved, the parties are seemingly closer to finalizing agreements on the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park than ever before.

This time around, the Edmond Fine Arts Institute is proposing a $10 to $15 million art and event center on site. A trio of prominent Edmondites helped usher the parties back together: EFAI director Shannon Price, attorney Todd McKinnis (who now represents French and EFAI) and former councilman Josh Moore.

A longtime Edmond resident and a petroleum and real estate entrepreneur, French has largely attempted kept a low profile despite significant public interest in his high-profile dream. Since purchasing the 62-acre parcel at the northwest corner of East Second Street and North Coltrane Road for $4.5 million in December 2021, French has abstained from meetings with city leaders, first sending Shadid and now sending McKinnis on his behalf.

Perhaps the loudest action French has taken since purchasing the property came during January’s installation of the Valley of the Horse statue, otherwise known as the “Valle del Caballo.” As French dirtied his hands to help set the massive bronze sculpture by Oklahoma artist Paul Moore, numerous motorists honked and screamed from their vehicles in hope that the installation indicated that the park was coming to fruition.

But progress been far from linear since the parties returned to the table last winter. At the end of April, McKinnis said during a luncheon that he believed the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park was on “life support.”

While their concerned tone seemingly sounded a death knell for the project, McKinnis’ words instead served as a call to action for all parties to continue dialogue on the park’s remaining issues: a quartet of agreements that must be ironed out and approved by the Edmond City Council no later than June 1.

Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park agreements
Attorney Todd McKinnis, representing Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park donor Hal French, speaks to the Park Conservancy Trust on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Joe Tomlinson)

“In the three or four weeks since I said that, it’s just been one problem solved after the other,” McKinnis said at the Park Conservancy Trust meeting Tuesday. “I don’t think this happened last time, but there has been a daily dialogue back and forth between my clients and the City of Edmond to try to address issues as they come up together.”

Still, last summer’s abrupt near-collapse remains on the minds of stakeholders as Memorial Day approaches. During Tuesday’s Park Conservancy Trust meeting, all parties expressed a sense of urgency to find solutions and get final approvals from the Edmond City Council such that the French Family Charitable Foundation and EFAI can begin further efforts to fundraise the roughly $30 million to $40 million still needed for the project.

Shadid, who also serves as the Park Conservancy Trust’s chairman, was blunt Tuesday.

“If this doesn’t happen June 10, it’s over,” he said. “Bottom line.”

As noted, Monday, June 10 is the deadline for the city to adopt its municipal budget for Fiscal Year 2025. At its meetings May 28 and June 10, the Edmond City Council is scheduled to consider the four agreements needed to sand down and unveil the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park:

  • Development and funding agreement (May 28);
  • Municipal sales tax rebate agreement (May 28);
  • Loan and security agreement (May 28);
  • Property operations, maintenance and programming agreement (June 10).

While the June 10 deadline and the unknown costs of annual maintenance caused consternation during Tuesday’s meeting, there seemed to be more optimism about the project than ever before.

“I can only speak for myself, but I have never been more confident that this is going to happen,” said Ward 3 Councilwoman Christin Mugg.

‘We can’t just pull them out of our ass’

From left to right: Ward 1 Councilman Tom Robins, Josh Moore, Ward 3 Councilwoman Christin Mugg, Randel Shadid and Teresa Rose, settle in before a Park Conservancy Trust meeting Tuesday, May 21, 2024. (Joe Tomlinson)

At Tuesday’s meeting, Park Conservancy trustees discussed four draft agreements encompassing the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park, but no votes were taken on the items owing to uncertainty about annual maintenance costs.

All four draft agreements had been placed on Tuesday’s agenda for discussion and consideration. However, as the agreements are interdependent, Shadid said it would be best to take up votes at a future meeting so they can work to resolve the issues.

While Shadid serves as the PCT’s chairman, Moore and Communities Foundation of Oklahoma executive director Teresa Rose serve as the PCT’s community members. Mugg and Ward 1 Councilman Tom Robins fill the PCT’s elected official seats.

Shadid said the funding and development agreement, the municipal tax rebate agreement and the loan and security agreement are expected to be considered by the Edmond City Council at the May 28 meeting. Shadid said its likely he will call a special meeting for the PCT to consider approving all four agreements sometime after the May 28 meeting and prior to the June 10 Edmond City Council meeting. Then, if all goes to plan, the council would consider the property operations, maintenance and programming agreement June 10.

McKinnis delivered a presentation on the four agreements Tuesday, and he said the property’s operations, maintenance and programming agreement has been the most difficult to pin down, as the parties are unsure how to estimate maintenance costs on a project that will not be built for nearly two more years.

“How do you budget for the operation, maintenance and programming of a park that is not even going to be owned by [the PCT] for two years?” McKinnis asked. “In my estimation — and I said this to (city attorney) Madeline (Sawyer) on the phone an hour ago — between now and whenever this document is determined to live or die, I believe those groups have to get together and ask questions.”

The maintenance on the project, as it currently stands, is proposed to be funded by an annual contribution from the city and an endowment established by French that would collect proceeds from restaurant and retail sites developed on the west side of the park tract.

City leaders said Tuesday the city’s maximum annual contribution for the park’s maintenance would be $1 million. The proposed budget within the draft operations and maintenance agreement shows a 70-30 percent split for maintenance funding — $996,660 from the City of Edmond and $427,140 from the park’s proposed endowment. McKinnis and Shadid said those splits are modeled after Scissortail Park in Oklahoma City.

Mugg said during the meeting that council members need to review those numbers before committing on an amount.

“It’s going to happen and it’s going to work out, but I don’t think anybody expects council members to commit to $1 million annually — that we would assume was going to be renewed each year and costs may even go up — without doing our due diligence,” Mugg said.

Price, the EFAI’s executive director, expressed frustration about the PCT’s decision to refrain from voting Tuesday. In anticipation of three of the four agreements being approved by the Edmond City Council on May 28, Price said the EFAI hoped to have architects submit designs for the proposed art and event center by May 31.

“I have a real problem with this being delayed at all because I don’t understand what kind of conversation we’re going to have about an imaginary budget that isn’t even going to be real in two years,” Price said.

After being asked a few more questions by Price and another Edmond resident, Mugg sternly said council members would have to justify moving funds from other line items.

“We have to find these monies, OK? We can’t just pull them out of our ass,” Mugg said. “We have to find these funds and say why they’re not being used for something else and they’re being used for this, and feel confident that that’s a good use of the money.”

Price said EFAI planned to use some American Rescue Plan Act funds for the project, but she said the entity now must pivot because of the delay.

“We voted last Thursday that if this isn’t decided on the 28th, I have to start looking at other ways to spend our ARPA funds and start moving forward because we don’t have time to waste anymore,” Price said.

Toward the end of the meeting, McKinnis emphasized the need for all parties to work together.

“In the paper recently, one of your colleagues talked about a negotiation, and I think the attitude going forward is it’s got to be a collaboration, that it’s a win-win,” McKinnis said. “Everybody’s worried about money, right? And so I hope and I believe that’s the plan going forward.”

With a hint of skepticism, Mugg agreed.

“I desperately want this to be a collaboration and not a negotiation,” she said.

After the meeting, both McKinnis and Mugg agreed the terms of the funding and development agreement, the municipal tax rebate agreement and the loan and security agreement are largely settled, but questions remain on the maintenance budget.

“I think that’s the only uncertainty that’s substantive. What are we agreeing, at least that first year, it is going to cost?” McKinnis said. “I don’t think there is any disagreement about the logistics of how it gets maintained, operated and programmed.”

Shadid said he believes all parties will need to “lock themselves in a room” and figure out a firm estimate on what those maintenance numbers are.

“We’re just making our best guess, and I guess the city is making their best guess,” Shadid said.

After the meeting, McKinnis and Mugg both expressed hope that French’s endowment will grow significantly and help even out the maintenance funding split.

“I think that’s the vision: that that endowment is so significant that the park is maintained by the city at its baseline level,” McKinnis said.

Robins said the tension in the room Tuesday was indicative of the project’s importance to the community.

“The anxiety that is felt is because art is so important in Edmond and quality of life is so important in Edmond,” Robins said. “I think feelings are legitimate, I think the emotions are legitimate because it’s an emotional thing. Anything worth doing creates that.”

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Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park agreements illustrate large commitments

Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park
Renderings of the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park were presented to the Edmond Planning Commission on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park)

In totality, the draft agreements display a significant financial commitment from all parties, including the public.

“The City of Edmond’s in for $10 million, Hal (French) is in for $20 million-plus, and the Fine Arts (Institute) is going to build somewhere around a 15,000 square foot building, which is estimated to be somewhere in the $15 million range,” McKinnis said.

The funding and development agreement indicates that the Edmond Public Works Authority would provide a $10 million loan to Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park, Inc., a private nonprofit, to fund infrastructure improvements. All loan repayment obligations by French would be forgiven upon his donation of the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park tract to the PCT, according to the development and funding agreement.

“It is no intention of Hal French at this moment — or I think at anytime — to not convey the park, but that is a protection for the city for their money, and there’s an interest rate to be negotiated and an amortization schedule,” McKinnis said.

Shadid noted that French’s commitment, which “shall not be less than $20 million,” includes assets such as land costs, site improvements, art, architectural fees, engineering fees and more.

The funding and development agreement also states the City of Edmond would be responsible for all future road improvements adjacent to the project site and restaurant and retail areas, including engineering or widening along North Coltrane Road and East Second Street that many area residents have requested for years.

City leaders have pondered using general obligation bonds to fund road improvement projects across the city, and GO bonds could only be authorized through voter approval.

However, the agreement clarifies that those road improvements are not defined as infrastructure improvements. That means the $10 million loaned to French by the Edmond Public Works Authority would not be used for road expansion. Similarly, the city would also be responsible for engineering and expansion of the Huntwick neighborhood’s detention pond — which lies north of the property — if needed.

The funding and development document also includes language recommending that the Edmond City Council amend the PCT’s declaration of trust to add an additional community trustee to be appointed by the Edmond Fine Arts Institute. McKinnis had expressed concern with a previous city proposal to expand the composition of the five-member Park Conservancy Trust by adding two trustees appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Edmond City Council.

The funding and development agreement states the project would include the same amenities that were approved for the park in May 2023, minus a proposed splash pad and pickleball courts.

If all goes to plan and the project in is approved in totality by June 10, Shadid and Price both said they will begin fundraising efforts on the park and the art and event center, respectively.

“This will be every bit of $65 million, and probably $70 million,” Shadid said. “We’ve got some heavy lifting to do once we know we’ve got a deal.”

McKinnis said April 24 that French has secured other significant commitments for “institutional philanthropic dollars.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, McKinnis joked to attendees that future Edmond residents will enjoy the project without the headache and heartache community leaders endured to bring the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park to life.

“My youngest daughter graduated from Arkansas last Saturday. She’s 23,” McKinnis said. “Her grandchildren are going to go to this park, and they’re going to have no idea about all the brain damage and heavy lifting that took place for this to happen.”