By Michael Jacobs
The John Ripley Forbes Big Trees Forest Preserve has covered 30 acres on the east side of Roswell Road in northern Sandy Springs since 1990, but if you don’t know where it is, you might have a hard time finding it now.
That’s because a vehicle struck and demolished the Big Trees sign on a recent night and the nonprofit organization has no money for a new one.
Volunteers cleaning up the park the following weekend found two car doors and a front fender, but the city has no police report on the accident, so Big Trees can’t get the driver’s insurance to replace the sign, Executive Director Randall Fox said.
“Now I have a great big park with no sign,” he said.
“Big Trees is broke,” said Fox, who has to pay for water himself for volunteers maintaining the preserve.
But the city’s hidden green gem has a big shot at boosting its public image and its bottom line this fall.
The Chastain Park Arts Festival on Oct. 17 and 18 and a preview party for the festival at the Horseradish Grill on Oct. 15 could go a long way toward growing healthy financial roots for Big Trees under its new board and new president, Sam Hale.
Big Trees, which is next to the North Fulton Service Center, entered a new phase early this year when real estate developer Charles Roberts stepped down as president and stopped paying the preserve’s $90,000 in annual bills after three years. Roberts said it was time for Big Trees to start raising its own money and to broaden its connection to the community by adding board members from each of Sandy Springs’ six City Council districts.
The transition came at a cost: Big Trees eliminated its paid staff, including its executive director, Patricia Thernell, who focused on running the preserve rather than raising money.
In her place on a temporary basis is Fox, a partner in the Atlanta Foundation for Public Spaces with one of Big Trees’ new board members, Patrick Dennis. Fox has served as the full-time, unpaid executive director since February and anticipates holding the job for about two years before Big Trees is ready for a paid leader.
He said the Chastain festival is one of about 20 ideas the new Big Trees board came up with to raise money.
Hale, a 50-year Sandy Springs resident who replaced Roberts as Big Trees’ president in March, credited fellow board member Dennis with the idea to help Big Trees through the arts festival. Hale said he’s hopeful the festival will be a big moneymaker and is confident it at least will raise Big Trees’ public profile.
The expanded board is part of that effort. Roberts remained on the board, as did longtime members Randy Pollard and Margaret Forbes, the widow of Big Trees’ founder. Seven new members joined them: Hale; Dennis; Katherine Feeman, a director of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods and longtime Big Trees volunteer; Donald Huffner, an AIG executive and a director of the Urban Renaissance Group; Scapes landscape architect Eric King, the president of the Georgia Urban Forest Council; commercial real estate adviser Leslie Burke, who organized Leadership Sandy Springs’ volunteer day at Big Trees last year; and architect Travis Vickers, whose nonprofit involvement includes the Urban Land Institute.
“It’s not up to one person” to secure Big Trees’ future, Hale said. “It’s a community effort. … We’re short on money, but we’re not in dire straits.”
The festival is just a start and won’t help Big Trees next year, when the Chastain Arts Center will be the beneficiary.
“Big Trees needs the kickoff, but it also has to stand on its own two feet,” Fox said.
While fundraising is always difficult in a recession, Big Trees’ lack of recreational amenities makes it an even tougher sell, Fox said. Donors might like to pay to dedicate a park bench, for example, but Big Trees doesn’t have the money to buy the bench. The preserve has a steady need for mulch, but that doesn’t excite donors.
“The philosophy of Big Trees was a meditation park,” Fox said. “It’s a walking park, walking trails. We’re having to change that mentality slightly and create a little bit more activities while keeping the integrity of the park the way it is.”
Another problem is the shared ownership of the preserve, he said. The city, state and Southeast Land Preservation Trust co-own Big Trees, so no one entity has taken responsibility. Fulton County used to provide $50,000 a year, but that stopped when Sandy Springs incorporated and took the county’s share of Big Trees.
The city has stepped up in recent weeks and paid the electric and water bills, Fox said, praising Recreation and Parks Director Ronnie Young and Dist. 2 Councilwoman Dianne Fries for their help.
Another success for the new board came in the late spring when the City Council included $250,000 in this year’s capital budget to add bathrooms to Big Trees.
Now the board is planning how to better integrate Big Trees into the community, from encouraging Eagle Scout projects there and operating an interactive honeybee activity at an existing hive to planting seeds for a state-sponsored chestnut tree project.