"I instantly knew this is where I was supposed to be," Bill said.
Bill and Connie, who had been married a year when they left Dallas, now have roots in Eureka Springs that go back more than three decades and raised their two children here. For the past 14 years, Bill has been paying it forward as a member of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, and as chairman, oversaw the passage of a sales tax levy to fund road repairs and facility upgrades at Lake Leatherwood City Park.
For putting his time, his energy and his heart into ensuring that Lake Leatherwood City Park will be there for future generations, Bill Featherstone is the Lovely County Citizen's 2012 Citizen of the Year.
"I accept the honor on behalf of the parks commission, the parks staff and the plethora of volunteers who contribute in so many ways throughout the year," Featherstone said. "It takes all of us."
Featherstone originally got involved in Lake Leatherwood because of sports. The backstory: when his son was 4 years old and started playing T-ball, there was only one baseball field in town, and that was a rocky, substandard field on the school campus south of town. Baseball was big in the 1980s and into the '90s, and the school teams, youth sports and adult leagues all vied for use of the field for practices and games. And before each game, team members had to walk the infield with buckets, removing rocks. Featherstone also started a soccer team that played on the infield of the school track, also rocky.
"It was embarrassing to invite other teams to play here," he said.
After the 20-year lease of Lake Leatherwood to a private operator expired in the '90s and it reverted to city ownership, the idea of locating sports fields at the park started gaining momentum. It culminated in the city's Parks and Recreation Commission proposal to build three multi-use sports fields just inside the park boundary. As a big supporter of the plan, Featherstone was appointed to the commission. His first meeting was in the summer of 1998, when the proposal came up for a vote.
"There are seven people on the commission, and it was 3 to 3," he said. "I was the fourth vote."
Featherstone knew what sports fields were supposed to look like. Born in Greenville, Miss., he grew up in Jackson, Miss., where kids played baseball on flat, green fields. After graduating from William B. Murrah High School in 1971, Featherstone attended Ole Miss, then transferred to Southern Methodist University. With a business degree from SMU, he worked for a real estate developer in Dallas for five years, but was never a big-city person -- unlike Connie, who was Dallas born and raised.
"I've been in sales all my life, and the toughest sale I ever had was to convince her to pull up roots in Dallas and move to little old Eureka Springs," Bill said.
They were debt-free but had no jobs when they arrived in town that spring 32 years ago. And they knew only one person, Connie's brother-in-law, who had moved to Eureka Springs to start a business, a gift shop adjacent to the Basin Park Hotel. Both Bill and Connie were involved in the stop that first year, Bill said, then he and King Gladden opened up a toy store on Spring Street, 'Toys and Games Unique.' It evolved into 'Noveltees,' a store that Featherstone started and ran for 14 years. Connie worked for the Chamber of Commerce and the Bank of Eureka Springs, now Cornerstone, then for Community First Bank, which Gladden had started. After 'Noveltees' closed in 1998, Bill worked for 'The Lovely County Citizen' as an ad salesman. He is now a real estate appraiser with Parrish Appraisals.
Gladden was the first person Bill and Connie met when they moved to town and was known for his "can-do" attitude -- ask Bill to tell you the story about how they drove to St. Louis on the day of third game of the 1985 World Series and got tickets to that night's game and the next two. It's an attitude Featherstone applies to revitalizing Lake Leatherwood.
"This is going to get done, and it's going to get done a lot faster and easier if everybody gets on board," he said. "Everybody should be asking 'What little bit of this can I do?'".
What needs doing, besides fixing the road from Highway 62 to the lake: turning the old CCC bathhouse, now mainly used for storage and a laundry, into a nature center and indoor meeting space. Building a handicapped-accessible bathroom with showers. Landscaping the sign at the park entrance and putting up an interpretive kiosk at the main park area. Reroute, renovate and sign trails. Build a bridge across West Leatherwood Creek at the south end of the lake. The bottom line: to make the park more attractive and more accessible to more people for more days of the year while maintaining the sanctity of the property, Featherstone said.
"You're two miles from town and all the craziness and the motorcycles and you hear nothing," he said. "That's what Leatherwood is -- a peaceful place. The ball fields are a very few acres. The rest is natural."
On any given day, however, the park is under-utilized, despite an array of recreational options. They include 25 miles of trails that spiderweb in all directions. A kayak launch ramp that is handicapped accessible can be used by everyone. An old limestone quarry in the side of the mountain is home to mountain boomers, two-foot long lizards that walk around on their hind legs like dinosaurs. A fishing trail winds down to the dam. A bait shop and small marina rents paddle boats and canoes in season. A bird-watching blind was built by a devotee of the sport, J. Pat Valentik, who has recorded 199 species of birds at the park.
"Leatherwood has a lot to give, and people haven't taken it," Featherstone said. "I think it's the greatest asset the city owns in its sheer volume and the recreational opportunities it provides -- there's not anything that compares to it."
The sales tax levy, which will run four years, will provide approximately $105,000 a year, funds that park commissioners hope to increase exponentially by using as matching funds for grants. The Lake Leatherwood committee has written the first draft of the park's master plan, which in its completed form, will detail the projects that need to be done and prioritize them.
"Eureka is really blessed as a community to have this kind of real estate donated to us," Featherstone said. "Along with that comes the obligation to take care of it."
Created in the late 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, Lake Leatherwood City Park covers 1,620 acres, making it one of the largest municipally-owned parks in the country. It also has one of the largest hand-cut limestone dams in the country. The bath house, cooking pavilion and diving platform date from the CCC. The Leatherwood Fields Municipal Ball Park, inside the park entrance near the highway, has a lighted, full-sized baseball field and a lighted, full-sized soccer field, plus a practice soccer field, concession stand and restrooms. The ballpark hosts music and community festivals, and is used for three major bicycle events, the XTerra in June, the Fat Tire Festival for mountain bikers in July, and the Eurekan in August.
For more information about Lake Leatherwood City Park, contact the Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission, 479-253-2866 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.