Historic Courthouse lawn

THE CHRISTIAN COUNTY COURTHOUSE LAWN, seen looking from the southwest corner north toward the Baldknobbers hanging monument and the Gazebo, does not have any sidewalks surrounding the perimeter of the interior Ozark square.

City leaders from Ozark will be reaching out to the Christian County Commission, if they haven’t already, to ask for partnership and further participation in the revitalization of the downtown square.

As construction crews tore into streets, replaced utility lines and striped parking spaces for a new one-way traffic design, elected and appointed officials in Ozark proceeded with plans for the next phase of street and utility improvements around the Christian County Historic Courthouse.

At an Ozark Board of Aldermen meeting on Dec. 17, Ozark Director of Public Works Jeremy Parsons expressed his displeasure with Christian County not committing to a financial partnership with a plan to put sidewalks and utility improvements on the outer perimeter of the Historic Courthouse grounds.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this, this is very disappointing. Obviously, the historic square is the centerpiece of our town, the county seat. We were hoping to do this all at once because there is some economy of scale, we’re going to have contractors there. Our goal is to turn this into an event space that is showcasing the historic downtown square,” Parsons said.

In October 2020, the Ozark Historic River District received a $30,000 grant from Impact 100 Ozark to refurbish the gazebo on the northwest corner of the courthouse grounds. The gazebo will be redesigned to include patio space and renovated so that it will be able to host performers and musicians for concerts. 

“We were trying to play off of that and just turn our square into an absolute center of activity. By them not doing this, I think it slows that down,” Parsons said.

Christian County Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips said that city staffers from Ozark approached him about sidewalk projects on the square about two years ago.

“The way it was presented was, I didn’t think, cost effective. I think everybody knows me well enough to know that every penny counts,” Phillips said. “My personal goal, for what it’s worth, has always been to bring people back together downtown.”

The potential deadline for Ozark to put packages out for bid is no later than the spring of 2020. Parsons said the bidding is the result of about two years of work, which the Christian County Commission has seen “multiple times.”

“We have detailed cost estimates and we have a plan put together showing what would be their cost versus our cost. I mean, there was a lot of time and effort put into just breaking down the preliminary cost estimates and showing what they would be responsible for and what we would be responsible for,” Parsons said.

Ozark City Administrator Steve Childers appeared before the county commission in December to discuss the scope of the street and utility projects on the square.

“We’ve been talking to the county, obviously, since we started this project. We went into this project designing a Cadillac. We made sure we took input from everyone downtown, including HRD, which is our Historic River District. There have been many, many meetings with what we want this to look like,” Childers said.

On Dec. 10, the Christian County Commission voted 3-0 to grant work easements for the street projects surrounding the square. The city of Ozark is responsible for everything from the curb outward on the four streets surrounding the historic courthouse, while Christian County is the property owner and is responsible for maintaining everything from the curb inward. 

In previous meetings, the county commission has specifically discussed the gazebo and its renovation. The commission agreed that while the Historic River District’s project will lead to added interest in use of the gazebo and gatherings downtown in general, Christian County remains the liability holder for any issue what would take place on the grounds that Christian County owns.

But when asked about participating directly in sidewalk and utility work alongside the city of Ozark, the Christian County Commission took an action that Childers deemed to be declining to partner with the city.

“During that meeting, they said ‘Thank you, but no thank you. We would rather do it ourselves.’” Childers recounted.

Phillips said he was surprised with the turn that the discussion took at the Ozark Board of Aldermen meeting, and that Christian County would move forward with plans to construct sidewalks on the interior of the square in the future.

“The last thing I want is us to start backing up and getting into this negativity—2020, there’s been enough of it,” Phillips said. “We started considering a sidewalk project three years ago when the maintenance director and I watched a little old lady almost fall out here because there are no sidewalks.”

Ozark had plans to build the interior curb, sidewalk, underground utility extensions and plug-ins on the square. Instead, it received a 20-foot utility easement to do curb work on the interior of the square, but anything on the inside of the curb is up to Christian County, save for some utility line stubs.

“I just want people to be clear that early on we had talked about doing a sidewalk around the square. We’ll still be doing the curb and gutter and the bulb-outs and all these great things,” Parsons said. “It’ll look fantastic, it’s just the sidewalk around the square. They have decided to take that responsibility on by themselves and not be a part of this project.”

A bulb-out is a street construction feature that extends a curb and sidewalk into a parking lane to provide additional pedestrian space and safety at a key location. In Ozark’s case, there are plans for bulb-outs on the interior of each corner on the square, which will shorten pedestrian crossing distances and promote safer passage for people walking onto the Christian County Historic Courthouse grounds.

More electric boxes would allow for food trucks to plug in and access power sources when they park on the street, meaning the square could host outdoor festival events without extension cords running across the courthouse lawn.

“We’re not going to be doing that now. That is not our property, we don’t have the authorization to do that, and the county has said that they would do that later; I don’t know when that is,” Childers said.

Alderman Ted Smith expressed his personal opinion that Christian County would not spend the money to build the sidewalks and utility hook-ups as designed.

“Ted Talk: county ain’t gonna do that,” Smith said. “If they’re not committing to do it now, they’re not going to do it later.”

Smith’s assertion, Phillips said, is not correct.

“The comments by one of the aldermen are not true. We are going to do it, whether the city did their project or not. We thought, ‘Why not wait until they do that, that way they’re not tearing our stuff up.’ We’ve had that in the plan for three years, and it will happen,” Phillips said.

Smith said that Christian County is missing out on an opportunity to save money on some of the work to revamp downtown.

“They’ve worked with us on projects, don’t get me wrong, but they’ve never, that I am aware of, really taken a stance on trying to improve things like that—sidewalks around the square and stuff like that. I have no reason to believe that they ever will,” Smith said. “Even if they were doing that with their own people or their own resources, it’s still cheaper to do it at the same time than it is later.”

One-way travel is part of a larger plan to revamp and revitalize downtown Ozark into a gathering place that will serve as a community focal point for years to come. Road crews milled and re-striped parking spaces to make parking one-way on the four streets that make up the square.

The changes will only apply to the sections of North Second Street, East Elm Street, North Second Avenue and West Church Street that run adjacent to the historic courthouse.

Parsons did meet with Richard Teague, Christian County Building Maintenance Supervisor, Childers said. The two men walked the worksite.

“What they talked about is ‘Where do we want this to overlap?’” Childers said.

“I think the proof will be in the pudding. Once we get this thing going, I think it’s going to be safer, it’s going to be more pedestrian friendly, and I think it’s going to be more efficient,” Parsons said.

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