Funny as it may sound, you can trace the success of a campaign to retain Camp Hawk — with county residents officially voting against a potential sale in the 2017 election this past fall — back to the unifying power of a little, round piece of plastic.
Chances are if you read the pages of this newspaper or just drove around the county within the past year, you were made aware of the ballot issue regarding the county park just outside of Newton. Behind the campaign raising awareness on that issue — leading them to be named The Kansan's "Newsmakers of the Year" — was a small group led by the trio of Dan Harms, Brandon Nelson and Jeremy Kindy, who were initially brought together through the disc golf course at Camp Hawk.
Harms was drawn in back before the turn of the millennium, when he was approached by Gavin Peterson for a donation to help in the construction of the course out at Camp Hawk. It was, he noted, his first endeavor giving to the community (outside of his own church) in that capacity — and he has been invested ever since.
When Harms first heard of the county commission's decision to pass a resolution of sale for Camp Hawk, he had a lot of questions — questions on whether this was truly a financial hardship and if enough input was gathered leading up to this decision.
The answers Harms heard were not satisfactory and were what spurred him to action in petitioning to put the issue of a sale to a vote, even though he believed it put county residents in an unfair position.
"What really disturbs me is the burden was put on the citizens to take their voice back. They weren't given a chance for a voice, not even through an advisory parks board or through a public forum," Harms said. "It was just done and now if you're going to have a voice you're going to have to take it back."
Nelson, similarly, did not hear any justifiable rationales behind the approved resolution to sell Camp Hawk. Like Harms, he too had invested a lot in the disc golf course and the park itself — volunteering regularly by trimming trees, mowing, etc. Not seeing any real reason to get rid of the park, he saw no other viable course of action than to fight the sale.
Kindy stated the whole situation was confusing. Even before he met Harms and Nelson through the disc golf course at Camp Hawk, he was heavily involved in that realm while working for Dynamic Discs — one of the top disc golf manufacturers — in Emporia.
Given his connections to disc golf, he was aware of the trends with communities across the U.S. looking to put in such courses, not take them out. While it was noted throughout by the petition group that the issue at hand was not solely about disc golf, it did help illustrate one of the main sticking points it had regarding the sale — taking away an activity that is free to the public, both in Harvey County and the surrounding areas.
"To me, that's the thing that the parks department provides the most. It provides a space for a lot of people who don't have a lot of money and live in our communities, and in a lot of our communities we're talking about a large group of people," Kindy said. "I think closing parks is a mistake because it's free space. It's a place to teach your kid to fish. It's a place to go rent a shelter for $125 instead of having to go to Wichita and spend $1,000 to have a wedding party or a Christmas party; or learn to play disc golf or play horseshoes or fly a kite, whatever the situation is."
"People use it, people love it all the time. They come out and have low-cost-of-entry activities just for a picnic or just for a round of disc golf or just to do some fishing," Nelson said. "Yeah, they're not buying a license or renting a boat dock — they do rent the building quite a bit — but it is a service that is used a lot and it's vital even if it doesn't show up well to everybody."
Once the petition group rallied together and began formulating a plan, the next obstacle became clear — as they found there was really no road map regarding the action they needed to take in drafting said petition.
While that proved to be a hurdle, the group found support from each other — with Kindy noting Harms' one step at a time approach was crucial —in continuing to push through and ultimately force the sale to be added as a ballot issue in 2017.
"There's no playbook as to how you put a petition together. There's nothing. They don't tell you all the ins and outs," Kindy said. "They don't tell you that stuff. That's stuff you have to figure out and, in our situation, the burden was on us to learn, to pay for it and to actually do the work in order to get to that spot."
"I think we all surprised ourselves and we're fortunate the community that we already had, largely because of disc golf...but the community we had proved really useful. We all had unique skills that we were able to come together and make it happen," Nelson said.
At no point during the process did Harms truly feel comfortable about the end result, he admitted, and while Kindy said it is easy to be on the side that ultimately got 78 percent of voter support, in hindsight, he also noted that was never an expectation among their group.
Even back when the group was first recruiting petitioners, Kindy said right before that first meeting he turned to Harms and questioned if anybody would actually show up. Sure enough, there were 20 people in attendance — many from outside the disc golf community — and the group had 35 petitioners go out to the community to gather signatures.
During that process, Nelson noted there was "zero kickback" from the community against the petition; the majority saw no need for the sale. Similarly, at events the group had a presence at in the past year — like Taste of Newton — Kindy said there was no vocal outcry again its mission, only helping to crystallize its purpose.
Throughout the year, Harms' presence at county commission meetings was a constant — to gain insight and see if there was any evidence to overturn the group's argument. Over the course of the year he heard none, and while there were pushes for the commission to drop the vote entirely and simply commit to retaining Camp Hawk based on the success of the petition, Harms admitted that, ultimately, he was glad with how the voting process played out and how that sets up the parks overall in the future.
"When you look through the precincts, it was overwhelming across the whole county, and that says the county wants parks in general, not just Camp Hawk. I think the important thing that comes out of this election and the landslide that it was is that hopefully the county administration and commissioners understand that the citizens of Harvey County want parks and that now maybe they will value the parks," Harms said. "Now, parks have a voice. They're gonna be cared for better. So, in the end game, I think all the parks are gonna benefit and therefore all the citizens wherever they live are gonna benefit."