Striking Symmetry Takes Shape

As the crown jewel in the developing Meridian Master Park Plan, construction of John A. Lomax Amphitheater nears completion at Meridian Park

MERIDIAN – Because of the symmetry, the simplicity in design and the use of natural stone, the ruins of the sweeping, imposing Greek and Roman amphitheaters often also give a sense of aesthetic serenity – an unexplained calm overcomes visitors as they explore the ancient structures.

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Proudly embracing the slogan "Our Town, Our Tomorrow," the Meridian Parks and Recreation Department's Master Parks Plan began to become a reality with the construction of the limestone-block amphitheater in Meridian Park over the last few weeks. And Monday evening, the Meridian City Council approved naming the new event venue the John A. Lomax Amphitheater.

During the process of being built, Meridian citizens could see and feel this aesthetic take form in the limestone-block amphitheater at Meridian Park, a scaled-down version of a Greek venue. Even in its present raw form, the unique structure stands out as pleasing to the eye, inviting visitors to enter and take a closer look.

Often during the construction, the workers could be found sitting within the circle, a comfortable, peaceful place to rest. Naturally nestled in the sloping terrain – one with the earth – the circular structure embraces those seated, allowing for a bucolic view of the park with old pecan trees. Actors, musicians and other future performers will instantly have a beautiful backdrop to their performances.

Every step of the structure’s build – from the delivery of the rock, the earthwork, the pouring of the cement path and center, laying of the flagstones – was very visible to each passersby, and much anticipated by those individuals and organizations that had a hand in the project envisioned and spearheaded by Parks and Rec board member Jack Cameron.

The innate beauty of the structure is already striking. As the landscaping around the amphitheater evolves and grows the amphitheater location will only become more charming. The laying of grass-sod July 7 was just another step in the completion. Come rain or shine, Parks and Rec members – aided by many community volunteers, young and old – laid the grass squares around the structure. The torrential downpour that day didn’t dampen their enthusiasm one bit. They got down and dirty to get the job done, knowing that all that rainfall will only aid the grass to settle in comfortably.

Further witness to the community support, Meridian resident Paul Keller donated five maple and five oak tree saplings to enhance the extension of the park.

In the future, the Meridian Parks and Recreation Department's Beautification Committee will be assisted by a former Fort Worth Botanical Gardens curator. Already, the design and placement took the impact of existing trees, engineering requirements and accommodation of ADA accessibility into account.

With the amphitheater highlighting the park area, Meridian will truly have an eye-catching gateway to the town – one of the objectives of the Master Park Plan.

ENRICHING THE LIVES OF RESIDENTS     

When moving to the new law enforcement center outside the town center, Bosque County left a “sows ear” of the old jail on a very visible, prime location. With the demolition of the old jail, the town ridge lighting and this project, people can see the “Our Town, Our Tomorrow” slowly but surely take form. The projects embody the Parks and Recreations main focus – projects and activities that enrich the lives of residents, build a healthier community, strengthening of community image and a sense of place and make the city a better place to live, work and play.

Showing their commitment to improving the quality of life in Meridian, the Meridian Economic Development Corporation backed several projects with funding and loans. Their goal is to attract more tourism to the town, and thus increasing sales in local stores and restaurants.

One of the investments made was for an outdoor projector and screen. One of the ways these items will be put to use will be planning outdoor movie nights at the amphitheater, showing movies.

The amphitheater project itself was initiated by Cameron of the Bosque Farmers Market. Long before the Master Park Plan was created, Cameron began wondering what should be done about the old jail site. He had visions of the extension of the existing park and adding a gathering place for all ages, a place to reflect. He attended both the Bosque County Commissioners’ Court and Meridian City Council several times, helping county and city officials visualize how the area could become an asset to the town, instead of an eyesore.

With City of Meridian Parks and Recreation Committees leading the way, other local organizations, such as Grassroots, have contributed to the project. The same group of people were very involved in the creation of a Master Parks Plan.

“It was a vortex of like-minded individuals and organizations that came together at the same time,” Cameron said. “We all want to help make Meridian a destination for tourists and to increase the sense of community at the same time by enhancing its assets. The amphitheater was a good first, very visual step in the plan.”

PRIVATELY FUNDED THROUGH DONATIONS

Meridian’s new, unique amphitheatre is completely funded by private donations and grants. Besides very actively seeking donors, Cameron was able to get extremely favorable bids from the main contractor Breaking New Ground, Apache Stone in Salado and Olde Towne Electric. Barnett Contracting offered an engineering plan at no cost. Cameron points out that with their assistance, the amphitheater project costs were considerably reduced.

The City of Meridian would like to thank all the people and organizations that have already made donations to the Amphitheater fund with over half of the $55,000 project already raised. To ensure the timely completion of the project, the Meridian Economic Development Corporation committed to advance the remainder during the interim, as funds come in.

"Please consider donating to this incredible project that will transform the entry way to our town," Parks and Rec President Don Hatley said. "The City of Meridian is tax exempt, being a local government under Internal Revenue Service, Section 170 (C)(1). This is just the first of many ways we plan to expand and beautify park areas in Meridian."

GIVING THE AMPHITHEATER AN IDENTITY

In choosing a name for the striking structure, Cameron wanted to tie in local history with the location. And that desire falls in line with the Meridian Master Park Plan to brand Meridian with its connection to the Chisholm Trail cattle drives of the 1800s and the legacies that come with it.

Meridian lies on a Chisholm Trail feeder trail, and with it came the authentic cowboy of the 1800s. Those cowboys would sit around the campfire at night, eating their beans and bacon, as one of them sang. It might have been a ballad learned from his Irish grandmother, a mother’s sweet lullaby, a song about the trials and tribulations of the hard life on the cattle drive, a love song filled with heartache and longing for a girl left behind. Besides entertaining the crew, the melodies would soothe the restless cattle.

A young Meridian lad was captured by these cowboy chansons and started writing them down, preserving them for future generations what had been passed only by word of mouth. It was the start of a lifelong preserving and promoting of American folk songs by John Avery Lomax.

Besides Texas cowboy country, Lomax's travels took him to the Mississippi Delta, recording the slaves chanting in the fields, and the development of the Blues. Consequently, Lomax discovered many musicians, who were to become famous, like Lead Belly and Muddy Waters.

Lomax’s work played a crucial role in the evolution of contemporary American music. As many as 10,000 songs, varying from cowboy ballads to Southern blues which “Ballad Hunter” Lomax gathered are part of the Library of Congress collection. The best known songs preserved by Lomax are “Home on the Range,” “Red River Valley” and “Goodbye Old Paint, I’m leaving Cheyenne.

A historic marker at the roadside park just outside Meridian on Highway 144 commemorates this special Bosque County citizen. With the approval of Meridian City Council July 13, the exquisite limestone block amphitheater will also bear his name, ensuring the Lomax legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of the town folk he called his home. A dedication of the John A. Lomax Amphitheater is planned for Sept. 19.

As mentioned earlier, the amphitheatre will be put to use before then, as a spot for outdoor summer movies and a place to perform music during the Bosque Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.

DEVELOPING MERIDIAN'S MASTER PARK PLAN

Aiming to enhance the quality of life in Meridian, the initial steps regarding a comprehensive Master Parks Plan to extend parks, connectivity and walkability for Meridian were taken in 2017 when Bosque County AgriLife Extension Office agent Kate Whitney brought several civic groups in Meridian together that were expressing wants and needs in that regard.

Thanks to financing by the Meridian Economic Development Corporation, a Meridian Master Park Plan project was initiated under the direction of the Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences Department with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Urban and Municipal Parks Development’s Dr. Jamie Rae Walker.

“You already have wonderful amenities," Walker said. "It is time to make them more accessible to more people.”

With expected growth in the I-35 corridor, Walker – citing explosive developments in Frisco and La Grange as examples – also stressed to start with planning now, before the available land is too expensive to buy or develop.

With that in mind, the long-drawn process to convince the Bosque County Commissioners to donate the old jail site to the City of Meridian was started. The site would allow for a considerable extension of the existing Meridian Park between Morgan Street and River Street.

The MEDC additionally committed $50,000 to the demolition of the old jail facility in order to kick start the process of creating the extended park area. With the grant, the MEDC took away any concerns regarding demolition costs, which allowed city to receive the donation of the building from the county.

“Demolishing and cleaning up the area alone, regardless on future development, will leave a huge positive impression on people,” MEDC President Brett Voss said. “Additionally, so much of the Master Park Plan hinges on that area.”

The preparatory work before the old jail demolition was largely done by a group of volunteers, who spent many hours stripping the interior of all usable and disposable items.

After analyzing existing assets, prioritizing wishes and possibilities – from simple solutions like adding cross walks, improving signage, to improving and widening sidewalks, to building a lengthy biking-hiking trail, to adding a welcome center with restrooms and possibly a splash pad – a comprehensive plan was finalized and presented by Walker to the MEDC and City Council.

The Meridian Master Park Plan represents a detailed design of how the community could enhance their outdoor activity spaces and increase the town’s quality of life.

Three of Walker’s undergraduate students assisted in gathering information from community groups, individuals of all ages and putting the plan to paper. The plan consists of what funneled down from a huge amount of ideas from civic input and includes concept maps drawn up for all park locations, with an example of an amphitheatre, water features, signage and even ideas on family events.

Walker stressed the importance of consistency in signage, saying “research tells us those little things make a lot of difference.”

There was a general consensus on wanting more parks and a variety of feature, and requests for recreational activities and river access. With that in mind, plans focused on making the present facilities easier to use and tying them into the new plans, and developing better connectivity between the present assets was mentioned.

“Not one person gave a sentiment against park development,” Walker said. “This is exceptional.”

It was up to the City of Meridian and its Parks and Recreation committee to decide which projects to tackle first.

MEDC President Brett Voss recommended doing something highly visible first, in hopes of getting citizens excited and interested in getting involved.

To that effect, the city continuously seeks financial assistance through various grant application processes for more street lights and safer sidewalks. MEDC funding has already led to adding decorative lighting on the square businesses and along Main Street, while a LED sign on the River Street gateway remains in the works.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Feasibility and funding of other larger projects will be the next step. And the comprehensive plan – with its appendices filled with background information – will play an integral part in the difficult process of applying for grants, sponsorships and donations.

The Parks and Recreation board acts as the legal recipient and organizer of the Master Park Plan that was developed.

“Our job is to push you forward, or to help you out of a hole,” Walker said. “Re-invigorating the Parks and Recs board was huge, because they will be the center of all processes. I want you to be excited, encouraged. Start with the small stuff, because you have people and money for that, then progress to the larger stuff. I want you to be my success story for the next community I’m asked to assist.”

Besides the ridge lighting, the creation of the amphitheater invigorated many Parks and Recreation members. The plan will also help coordinate the projects the different civic organizations are going to pick up, which projects can be combined for (cost) efficiency.

“I have feasibility concerns,” Walker said. “But not concerns regarding community engagement.”

Walker stressed the need to budget for maintenance of future projects, and policies regarding the use of the amenities. Capital projects and maintenance should be parallel, not separate. They go hand in hand.”

Walker also advised to secure Parks and Recreation funds separate from the city’s general fund. Connecting the school campuses to the town through a path from North Bosque Street would be a major improvement.

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“People use parks more if there is signage,” Walker said, encouraging the city to keep moving on the walkability and connectivity in all neighborhoods with cross walks, improved sidewalks and signage. Looking to the future, Walker recommended a diversity of playground equipment for all ages, areas that would appeal to seniors, but also areas that appeal to teenagers.

With that said, Walker held a meeting with Meridian’s youth at the high school to get input from that demographic group. Teens want to program for themselves, but do need a spot to hang out safely together.

Walker stressed the importance of creating “shared use” agreements with the Meridian Independent School District and Head Start so that people can use the playgrounds there or plan events there. The thought behind those shared use agreements is that tax payers will be able to use the facilities they pay taxes for and open up areas that are now presently “park deficient.”

Analyzing high win, low financial impact projects, feasibility and planning in increments, and start prepping for financing through donations and grants remains the next stage in the process.

Look for updates on the progress on the Meridian, Texas Parks and Recreation Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/meridiantxparks/,or contact the City of Meridian for more information at 254-435-2381.

Meridian looks forward to seeing you “at the park.”

Photos & videos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

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