By Colin Killian, Public Communications Director
The dedication of the Gary Halter Nature Center in Lick Creek Park on Feb. 22 provided an ideal opportunity to revisit the history of the extraordinary crown gem of the City of College Station’s outstanding park system. Dr. John Crompton, a two-term former city councilman and world-renowned parks and recreation scholar, was among the event’s distinguished speakers.
His well-researched remarks detailed Lick Creek Park’s complete history, firmly establishing why the city council recently named the nature center after Halter. Crompton’s comments are published here to help keep the park’s history intact.
The Genesis of Lick Creek Park
By Dr. John Crompton
In October 1980, at the behest of Mayor Gary Halter, the College Station City Council unanimously approved $50,000 to establish an Industrial Development Foundation whose mission was to attract high-tech businesses to the city.
On June 26, 1981, City Manager North Bardell announced the intention to purchase 1,266 acres two miles south of the city in its extraterritorial jurisdiction, where future growth was heading for “an industrial park and new city facilities.” The envisaged new city facilities were a new cemetery, a sewer treatment plant to serve the city’s southern areas, and a vague mention of a park.
It was part of a larger tract of 2,800 acres owned by a group of Houston lawyers who had sold a 1,030-acre of this parcel fronting onto Highway 6 the previous week to a private developer. The land bordered a 120-acre site the city was purchasing for a new landfill for $245,254, or $2,044 an acre.
The 1,266 acres were to be a joint development between the Industrial Foundation and a private individual who was not named but was subsequently revealed to be College Station realtor Bob Spearman, who turned out to be the private purchaser of the 1,030-acre tract. He had negotiated for that land for approximately three months and finalized the purchase the previous week.
Spearman wanted to purchase the entire 2,800-acre tract but did not have the funds. When he learned of the city’s interest in buying the remaining 1,266 acres, he approached the city to suggest a joint development, and the city agreed. As part of the agreement, Spearman would acquire the land and pass it on to the city at the price he paid.
The 1,266-acre purchase was finalized on July 24, 1981. The city issued $284,712 in certificates of obligation for the down payment. In addition, non-competitive COs of almost $1.3 million were issued to Spearman, who sold them to a local bank and used the funds to complete the purchase. Although the city acquired the land at cost, Spearman earned a commission of $37,961. Thus, the city’s total investment in the site was $1,581,712, i.e., $1,250 per acre.
To bring the land within the city boundary, the city annexed a one-foot strip down the middle of highway 6, so the site located about two miles beyond the city boundary would be contiguous.
The purchase was subjected to much criticism when it became public. Opponents argued the city had no business investing such large amounts without voter approval, especially on such a speculative venture. Mayor Halter responded by stating there was no risk to the city because the land could be sold at a profit if the plans did not come to fruition. Events in the following couple of years validated his response.
Consultants presented the first conceptual plan for the industrial park in April 1982. Its primary elements were light industrial and research/high technology areas, but it also included the cemetery, sewer treatment plant, a golf course, and some small, scattered park elements. Coincidentally, Texas A&M announced plans for a research park on campus in the same week, which appeared to compete with the city’s plan.
The city stressed the perceived differences between industrial and research parks. Still, there was no denying the A&M park would likely capture some of the anticipated demand for the College Station Industrial Park, resulting in the need to reduce the size of the proposed industrial park.
In August 1983, Spearman sold his portion of the 2,300-acre park to JAC Developers for about $3,500 an acre, more than double the price the city had paid a year earlier. To provide the industrial park with “sizzle” and to attract industry, they proposed a $15-20 million golf course, hotel, and conference center in the middle of the site. They suggested it would be supported by local and national celebrities, whose involvement would attract widespread attention. In the concept plan, park areas essentially disappeared, but the additional focus was placed on the golf course feature. However, the concept did not gain traction.
At this point, the three-way partnership among JAC, the city, and the industrial foundation appeared to stall because of the complex legal issues involved in a joint venture between a private corporation and a municipality.
The project was revitalized in July 1984 when Bill Fitch purchased 956 acres from JAC Developers. Fitch had been responsible for about 2,000 acres of the Southwood Valley residential development in South College Station. He wanted to add the project to his successful portfolio to “keep it a hometown project” and paid $5,000 an acre.
Fitch proposed building a residential development around a golf course on land owned by the city, contingent on the city constructing a $700,000 sewage treatment plant. To facilitate the development, a land swap traded 677 acres of city land for 200 acres of Fitch’s land fronting State Highway 6. The properties were each valued at $3 million.
The original ideas of a cemetery and a landfill proved non-feasible because of the site’s sizable floodplain. The idea of a large nature park was attributable to two stimuli. First, a spate of severe accidents on Highway 6 had emphasized the need to expand it to a four-lane highway. However, the environmental impact studies for the right-of-way revealed the presence of the Navasota Ladies Tresses, an endangered orchid. The tresses were also found on about 40 acres of the city’s land. To resolve the issue, the city agreed to protect the orchids if the road could continue.
A second stimulus was the informal use of the land immediately after it was acquired. A deeply rutted dirt road provided access to the treatment plant and the city’s land. Nevertheless, Mayor Halter began using it as a place to walk his dog. Other council members and staff, aware of the city’s ownership, also used it informally. On one of these visits, a member of the College Station police force did not recognize Mayor Halter and confronted him. He ordered the mayor to leave, asserting that the only folks with legal access were the police, who had the right to hunt deer in the area with about 40 doe permits.
The agreement to protect the orchids, the reduced size of the park for industry use, his informal experiences and those of others, and the police officer’s revelation, convinced Mayor Halter that the area should be a nature park available to all residents, not just the select few.
Thus, when the overall master plan for the site was revamped, the idea of a significant nature park emerged through the passionate advocacy of Mayor Halter and the support of City Manager North Bardell. Some city council members did not share his enthusiasm, but he prevailed.
Clearly, land for a park is much more easily and economically acquired before surrounding land is developed. During the complex negotiations in the early 1980s, Mayor Halter was subjected to substantial criticism. Indeed, if funding for the project had used general obligation bonds requiring residents’ approval, they likely would have rejected it because the site was too distant to be easily accessible. Further, the site had no paved roads, parking facilities, or utilities. The park would have no signage or trails for another 15 years after it was designated.
We are the beneficiaries of the far-sightedness of Mayor Halter’s leadership and passionate advocacy in securing the parkland at $1,250 an acre. Today’s price would likely be around $35,000 an acre, which the city recently paid for 100 acres for the next community park. Gary Halter has bequeathed us a much-admired gem, located close to the city’s geographical center, matched by few cities in America.
Thank you, Dr. Crompton, for your diligent and passionate research in compiling this detailed history of Lick Creek Park.
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