Friends of Tift Park member Allen VanHook, left, and group co-chairman Stephen Brimberry clean one of the park’s signs as a prelude to Saturday’s first Tift Park Community Market. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Ben Harper movingly sang “What started as a whisper, slowly turned into a scream.” For the recently organized Friends of Tift Park, what started as a social media campaign quickly turned into a cause.
Concerned over the city of Albany’s announced plans to sell part of the land in the historic park to a developer, supporters of Tift Park, located just north of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, effectively put together a campaign that helped squelch those plans.
Emboldened by their success, the park’s supporters formed what would become Friends of Tift Park, a loosely organized group whose “membership” has swollen to 696 since March. Membership is basically relegated to registering a “like” on the FOTP Facebook site, but the group is by no means all-talk, no-action.
Evidence of that assessment is set to become reality Saturday when Friends of Tift Park puts on the first of what organizers hope will be weekly Tift Park Community Markets. Developed in conjunction with the Southwest Georgia Project’s only mildly successful downtown Farmers Market, which for the past several years has been held beneath the city’s Jackson Street parking garage, and the D’Town Arts Coalition, the Community Market is poised to become one of the community’s premiere events.
“We talked with (former Downtown Manager) Aaron Blair and with the group that’s involved with the Art Park,” FOTP Co-chairman Stephen Brimberry said. (The group’s other co-chair is Benjamin McCrary.) “We wanted to tap into some of the good things that were happening downtown and also allow the community to reconnect with the park.
“It’s not really a fundraising event at this time, but we hope funds will eventually come from what we’re doing. If that happens, all of the money will be used to make upgrades in the park that the city can’t include in its budget at this time. That’s what’s being done in a lot of communities. We have no interest in taking over the park. We want to work with the city to improve it.”
Saturday’s inaugural Community Market, which starts at 9 a.m. and continues to 2 p.m., will offer a veritable smorgasbord of crafts, entertainment, artwork and locally grown produce. More than 40 vendors — and counting — will be there, offering craftwork such as home-made candles, pottery, solar lanterns, jewelry and soap. Food vendors — from Glenn Eames’ unique wood-fired pizza oven to a hot dog stand to the Bread House to Cedar Rock Dairy to TCBY to an area honey-maker — will sell their wares, and groups like Dougherty County 4-H and MakerSpace will have booths.
A nonprofit “booth for a cause” will set up each week of the Community Market to hand out literature, and entertainment will be provided. This week’s artists on hand will be Dwayne “Wimpy” Bowden of the legendary Albany-based rock band Messendger and the Evergreen Family Band, who will perform and also welcome other musicians at their “pickin’ tent.”
“I’ve lived in other cities that had these types of markets, and the key is involving as many people as possible,” Friends of Tift Park Treasurer Pam Barkley said. “You see people from so many walks of life brought together by an event like this. It can really be amazing.”
Brimberry said there is no charge for vendors who want to be a part of the Tift Park Community Market, which will be held under the canopy of oaks that runs along Fifth Avenue and North Monroe Street, directly adjacent to the park’s tennis courts.
“There are no vendor fees as we get this started,” he said. “We want the vendors to invest in themselves, and when they feel they can give back we want them to invest in Tift Park. Vendors do have to submit an application, though. They can’t just show up and expect to be part of the market.”
City of Albany interim Downtown Manager Monique Broughton said city officials are excited about the possibilities with the market.
“We’ve tried to have the farmers market downtown for the last several years, but I think the location is why things kind of fizzled out,” Broughton said. “When the Friends of Tift Park came to us with their suggestion, we all agreed: What better place to have something like this?
“Those guys have really pulled together and taken this to another level. I think they’re doing this for the right reasons, and you can feel the excitement building around what they’re doing.”
Friends of Tift Park member Allen VanHook is one of the vendors who plans to be at Tift Park Saturday, selling the solar lamps that he creates.
“This could become, I think, one of the great things we have in this city,” VanHook said. “There’s no limit to what can be done. We could have these markets weekly and maybe once a month have a car show, symphony in the park, a community yard sale. The emphasis will be on the community, and that’s important.”
Brimberry said FOTP is already talking with city officials about future upgrades for the park.
“Lowe’s is considering rehabbing the park gazebo, which had deteriorated to the point that the city was considering tearing it down,” Brimberry said. “Once we have some funds coming in, maybe we can look at new landscaping in the park.”
Adds Barkley: “The idea is to preserve, promote and protect.”
Friends of Tift Park volunteers have already cleaned the heretofore unreadable, grime-covered signage in and around the park and planted donated shrubbery.
“One of the things we’ve learned in doing this is that there is a great deal of community interest in the park, and there is a great deal of history associated with it,” Brimberry said. “Through our social media site and the ‘Vintage Albany’ site, we’ve learned that the trees themselves are historic, but the thing that everyone remembers most is the zoo.
“What we’re doing has stirred up a lot of childhood memories.”
And spawned a cause.
(Information about the Tift Park Community Market and Friends of Tift Park is available online by emailing email@example.com.)