Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park advances
Citizens packed into the Edmond City Council Chambers on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, to observe votes on the proposed Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park. (Michael McNutt)

Edmondites are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel after Edmond City Council members Tuesday night approved three of four agreements composing the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park.

However, as Ward 1 Councilman Tom Robins quipped during the Park Conservancy Trust meeting May 21, “Let’s just hope it’s not a train.”

Randel Shadid, chairman of the Park Conservancy Trust, praised Tuesday night’s votes, but he urged patience amid celebratory social media posts.

“I’m celebrating tonight, but as I’ve told you before, unless all four agreements are approved, none of them are approved,” Shadid said.

Shadid, who came out of retirement to represent his friend and park donor Hal French before the project seemingly collapsed last summer, said he hopes to meet with council members over the next week to further discuss maintenance costs — seemingly the last hurdle in the bumpy road for the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park.

“I’ve met with several of them. I’m going to meet with a couple more this week just to drill down the numbers on the operations and maintenance budget,” Shadid said.

Shadid plans to call a special meeting next week for the Park Conservancy Trust to consider all four agreements encompassing the park, he said. Then, the Edmond City Council would consider the final property operations, maintenance and programming agreement at its June 10 meeting.

Todd McKinnis, the attorney who now represents French and the Edmond Fine Arts Institute, also said he is celebrating Tuesday’s votes.

“I think we are. I think we’re there. I think I understood the reason for the delay on the other (agreement). There’s a lot of numbers, and everybody wants to believe that those numbers are based on what we can best guess,” McKinnis said. “But yeah, I’m thrilled. I was hopeful today we’d end up with a 4-1 vote at worst and a 5-0 vote at best, so I couldn’t be happier.”

The Edmond City Council voted 4-0 on all eight motions pertaining to the project Tuesday night, with Mayor Darrell Davis abstaining on each. Acting as both the Edmond City Council and the Edmond Public Works Authority, council members approved Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park components, including:

  • A funding and development agreement;
  • A municipal sales tax rebate agreement;
  • A loan and security agreement; and
  • The supplemental appropriation of $10 million from various reserve funds to be loaned to French for park infrastructure.

McKinnis emphasized cooperation he has seen from city leaders on the project over the last few weeks, before noting the adversarial history of this project.

“You’re dealing with a lot of baggage, and I was thankful I got involved not the first time around but the second time around,” McKinnis said. “I was discouraged about a month ago (…) because of where we were, but I’m more excited than relieved. If you asked me this two weeks ago, I would have been relieved, but now I’m excited.”

Prior to votes being cast, Ward 2 Councilman Barry Moore recounted an “unpleasant” May 2023 meeting where council members and French’s team deliberated for nearly four hours before approving the project’s site plan and eight variances.

“Nearly a year ago, I sat up here, and it was a pretty unpleasant meeting, and then this past winter Mr. French called and suggested we try this again,” Moore said. “So, from a year ago nearly today to right now, we’re like the old Virginia Slim cigarette commercial — we’ve come a long way, baby.

“We’re going to get this done, and I’m happy about that.”

Uncommon Ground to be ‘more than a field of sculptures’

Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park revival
Earthmoving work continues Monday, Dec. 18, 2023, at the site of the proposed Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park off 2nd Street west of Coltrane Road in Edmond, Oklahoma. (Michael McNutt)

Before presenting an overview of each agreement Tuesday, McKinnis explained that all four agreements encompassing the project depend upon each other.

“The four documents we’re talking about tonight are interrelated in the sense that unless all of them are approved — including the one we’re going to talk about on June 10, hopefully — they’re not enforceable,” McKinnis said.

McKinnis said The Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park, Inc. is responsible for constructing infrastructure improvements and building additions for the park. French’s commitment to the project “shall not be less than $20 million” and includes assets, according to the agreements.

The City of Edmond has agreed to loan $10 million to French’s nonprofit to fund infrastructure improvements, but those funds will not be counted toward road improvements at the East Second Street and North Coltrane Road intersection nor toward a water detention expansion component. The city is obligated to those projects separately, and all loan repayment obligations by French would be forgiven upon his donation of the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park tract to the Park Conservancy Trust, McKinnis said.

Construction is set to commence within 120 days of the city issuing building permits, according to McKinnis. Once construction begins, Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park, Inc. has 24 months to complete the park.

Meanwhile, the Edmond Fine Arts Institute is planning to raise funds to build a $10 million to $15 million art and event center on a portion of the property, but that building is not subject to the 24-month construction timeline.

“From the beginning discussions about Uncommon Ground, we saw the park as a natural extension of our mission, a place to integrate visual and performing art classes with nature,” said Shannon Price, executive director of the Fine Arts Institute.

Price said the park will be “more than a field of sculptures.”

“It has playgrounds, dog parks, outdoor stages, picnic groves, lawn pavilions, hiking trails, ponds and restaurants,” Price said. “And now, with FAI as the anchor, the park will be a creative community hub, where children and adults can explore the arts in a unique interactive environment.”

French is also planning to fund an endowment for ongoing maintenance that would collect proceeds from restaurant and retail sites developed on the west side of the park tract, McKinnis said. The city is also providing a sales tax rebate incentive for construction of the project.

“So any taxable sales for the construction materials or taxable activity for the construction of the park or the Fine Arts Institute building will be subject to this rebate for the benefit of the park,” McKinnis said.

McKinnis: ‘Your act today is risky maybe, but it is historic’

Todd McKinnis, attorney representing donor Hal French and the Edmond Fine Arts Institute, speaks to the Edmond City Council on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (Michael McNutt)

Toward the end of his remarks to the City Council on Tuesday night, McKinnis emphasized the importance of this project.

“Edmond has an incredible history of doing ambitious projects. I was struck by this at the Park Conservancy Trust meeting last week when we were standing in a room that overlooks KickingBird Golf Course,” McKinnis said. “I was also struck by the idea that risk is kind of the ticket purchase price to opportunity, and we have an opportunity that Edmond’s never seen before.”

McKinnis urged council members to support the project, provoking applause from citizens who packed the council chambers.

“Just like me walking into KickingBird in 1981 and seeing a plaque on the wall that had men and women’s names I had no idea who they were — they made a decision that impacted our community for multiple generations to come — and you’re going to do that, I believe,” McKinnis said. “I just cannot encourage you enough that your act today is maybe risky, but it is historic, and our community will never be the same. I just want to urge your support and investment in this going forward.”

Robins said the project speaks directly to Edmond’s quality of life opportunities.

“As I look at what is getting conveyed, it transcends a generationally impacting project that speaks to what makes us unique here in Edmond — that commitment-to-community quality of life and families,” he said.

Prior to votes on the agreement, Mayor Darrell Davis said “there’s a part to me that’s missing” during a three-minute speech explaining his decision to abstain on the Uncommon Ground Sculpture Park proposals:

Bear with me for a second here. All of you all know that I love art. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. There probably hasn’t been a piece of art in I don’t know how long that I wasn’t a part of. My family’s donated for art here. That’s not the issue.

Some of y’all don’t know what I’ve done for more than half my life is negotiate contracts. I didn’t negotiate this, but I do know one thing, there’s a part to me that’s missing. Thank you, Mr. French. Thank you for the team that’s come together and all of this. Thank you for the communities being here. There’s a lot of positive emotion in this room right now. There’s been a lot of positive and negative emotion that has been expounded upon our city outside.

So my concern is this: When we try to figure out how much it’s going cost to maintain, what are the items that are going to be on there? In negotiation, it’s not about emotion. It’s about the facts, and in two years, there’s going to be potentially another council up here, and two years after that — there’s always that rotation there. So my thing is this, we’ve been lucky as a council, there’s been historical documents that have been given to us from previous councils that gave us the substance and the basis to continue some lineage.

That, in my mind, is what’s missing here. We don’t have that financial, that risk assessment, that analysis of what it’s going to take. Yes, we can have all of the grand poohbahs of the fine arts come in here, and we can see because we all travel to those locations to go see those things. And we know the economic generation we have, but I’m talking about our city and the emotion that has gotten us here in a positive way. But when it’s time for the council to make the determination to say, “This is what it costs. This is the impact to our budget.” That’s what’s missing, and that is what I feel is necessary to go forward.

So anyone can write in their headlines — you can’t say that the mayor doesn’t like art, because that is not true. I’ve supported each and every one of these art initiatives in this town. Guess what? I support the development of the park. But in my mind, in my experience, if we don’t have this evaluation, this risk assessment, this type of documentation — which is going to be a guestimation — but we’ve got to have something to go forward for the next councils to figure out what is that.

That’s all I had to say.

The Edmond City Council is expected to consider the final park agreement and the city’s Fiscal Year 2024-2025 budget on Monday, June 10.