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Simmons: The Walldogs murals are not wanted in High Springs

Beginning on March 12, 2022, a private organization called The Heart of High Springs (THOHS) intends to host a week-long event that, in their words, will initiate a conversation with the community about a proposed project. As many are now aware, this project is known in short as “The Walldogs” event. News of the intended project has spread throughout the community, and the response has been less than positive. To understand why, we should first examine a brief history of the project.

In July 2019, a small group of High Springs community members legally formed the not-for-profit organization referenced above, with the stated goal of providing a vibrant community through a multi-faceted approach. Since that time, though, they appear to have had a near-singular focus on the installation of murals around the City in March 2023 through the use of the The Walldogs organization.  In the public meetings that have taken place since the beginning of the year, representatives of the group have essentially admitted to their prolonged efforts toward this end. 

On January 27, 2022, this project was brought before the High Springs City Commission at their regular meeting by THOHS. Their agenda included two items requiring approval: hosting of the week-long event noted above (for which a Special Use Permit is required) and the installation of a mural honoring a local influential former educator named Tom “Pop” Diedeman. It should be noted that, subsequent to further meetings, the mural for Mr. Diedeman has been indefinitely “tabled”. Their presentation was met with immediate backlash from those in attendance. The City Commission decided to postpone a decision on both matters, favoring a proposed special workshop to allow for greater discussion. Despite the fact that even THOHS representatives did not object to this process, at the February 10, 2022, commission meeting, they asked for a letter to be read into the record. This letter falsely stated that their agenda items remained unaddressed, and as such, they were requesting a vote on said items at this meeting.  The letter itself was confusing, asking for a vote while at the same time encouraging the proposed workshop (which would be a predecessor to the vote) and also suggesting that there had been threats of violence against them over this matter.  

A Special Workshop took place on February 15, 2022, for the expressed purpose of reviewing the Special Use Permit application submitted by THOHS for the proposed event. The City Commission heard from THOHS representative Sharon Yeago, who acted as the group’s spokesperson for the permit. They also heard from a large number of community members who shared their thoughts on the subject. Though the meeting was contentious at times, it ended after a lengthy discussion, with City Commissioners acknowledging, after being advised by the City Attorney, that the Special Use Permit could only be reviewed on a subject-neutral basis, meaning that the suitability of the project as a whole was mostly irrelevant. They referred it back to the City Manager for the final disposition.

In each City Commission meeting, one thing has rung most loudly: confusion due to disorganization and poor community engagement. As a result, people within the High Springs community may be trying to determine whether or not to support THOHS and their mural initiative. As they do so, I would suggest a review of the facts that have brought us to this point, along with the tone and actions of those involved.

It is presumed by many that THOHS has planned this event in March 2023 without public scrutiny and input and had intended to move forward with or without community (and City) support. In the recent public meetings, they’ve denied this despite the fact that a Facebook page for this event was created by The Walldogs in May 2019 (including plans and dates), prior to the official formation of THOHS and long before the community was well-informed. The Facebook page for THOHS, created after The Walldogs page, even includes a post from January 2020 that invites the public to an event in March 2022. At the January 27 meeting, Ms. Yeago stated that they would be presenting a mural of Mr. Diedeman “one way or another”, which clearly troubled some City Commissioners to hear. Furthermore, Ms. Yeago did not help change this perception when at the February 15 workshop, she stated with an exasperated tone that “… UNFORTUNATELY we have to ask the City’s permission to do this…”.

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While on the topic of social media, interested community members should review the Facebook page for THOHS. On January 26, 2020, the same day the page was created, the group posted a scathing statement toward the community. They accused “complainers” and “naysayers” of not being supportive of the community because they objected to the mural initiative, ignoring all the hard work that THOHS has put into this effort. The post suggested that without murals, local businesses would close their doors and move elsewhere. With posts like this, it is no wonder that social media has not yielded much support, as one of their representatives stated at the workshop. To drive the point home even further, a former member of THOHS stated at the workshop that there’s been a significant amount of opposition within the community since the idea was first presented.  

Perhaps the most important part of consideration is that there is no indication that the community stands behind this project. Commissioner Jones has shared the comments made to her from several community members, all of whom oppose THOHS’ mural initiative. In the same meetings, the other Commissioners did not have instances of public feedback in support of the project. At the January 27 meeting, there were ten attendees who spoke against the issue and only two attendees that did not appear to be affiliated with THOHS who spoke in favor. At the February 15 workshop, it was seventeen against and two in favor, again with the exception of those affiliated with THOHS. And of those who in spoke in favor, one of them did so because they did not personally want to paint murals. The other favorable comment suggested that “nicer places” like New York City and Miami have wall art, and it would be regressive for High Springs to not do the same. It should be noted, though, that of the very diverse crowd who spoke against the mural initiative, many of them clearly stated their appreciation of art in public places and historical preservation. Furthermore, with the exception of a few, there’s no noticeable support from local businesses.

A lot of questions remain unanswered. To some level, Commissioners expressed that they still haven’t received all the information that’s been requested. THOHS has raised some funds, but the amount required to complete the work (and the source of the funds) has not been provided. Likewise, they’ve not provided information related to future maintenance or costs of maintenance, nor have they even demonstrated that private building owners have given their approval to have the murals performed on their buildings. Some in the community have raised the question about implications to the historic status of the proposed buildings and how mural paintings may impact them. That particular topic has been raised numerous times and has not yet been responded to by THOHS. Folks in attendance at the meetings questioned why, if murals are needed, do we need to invite The Walldogs to town without allowing local artists the opportunity. There were questions about the agenda for the upcoming special event, and even though THOHS attached a “detailed agenda” to their permit application, they stated that they didn’t actually have a firm agenda. They spoke to a lot of “unintended consequences” of their plans, which gives the impression that their initiative is highly disorganized and continually evolving. Even as of the writing of this, their Special Use Permit remains in an unapproved condition due to insufficiency of the application. Another looming question (or concern) is the future voting potential of Commissioner Ambrose on this topic, as he is a Board Member for THOHS. While the City Attorney has advised that it may not be illegal for him to participate in such votes, I believe that most would agree that it is highly inappropriate.  

The intentions of THOHS simply don’t seem aligned with the wishes of the community at large. It gives the appearance to the community that decisions are being forced on the whole by a small group of “unknown” and ideologically-driven residents. Unfortunately, Ms. Yeago does not help their position with the tone she sets when speaking. Her statements have come across as very demanding and indignant. She’s used phrases such as “we need to talk about murals” and “we will be doing this”. She stands at the podium and emphatically asks for questions but then uses sociolinguistic control mechanisms to silence opposition and force acceptance of an inadequate response.

Regardless, though, we should consider one of the most important statements given by Ms. Yeago. No less than three times during the February 15 workshop, she said that this is “what the community wants and what the community needs.” I’m not sure who appointed THOHS as the arbiters of what the needs and wants of the community are, but according to their Facebook page, they are “working to enrich the quality of life in High Springs.” If this were truly their focus, then they would know that citizens are more concerned with water issues, road conditions, traffic, and future development than they are with murals. What the community wants and needs could not be any clearer, and that does not involve The Walldogs.

Seth Simmons is a lifelong member of the Alachua/High Springs Community and is a business owner in the City of High Springs.

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