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NL council makes dog park’s name official

Red Fern Dog Park invokes a love of dogs, nature and literature

NORTH LIBERTY– The long-awaited dog park in North Liberty has an official name. The park, scheduled to open next summer on 11.5 acres of land along North Liberty Road, has been known simply as, “the Dog Park.” The North Liberty City Council, on a 3-0 vote, approved “Red Fern Dog Park” as the park’s name.
City Administrator Ryan Heiar gave the council (Mayor Pro Tempore Chris Hoffman, Sarah Madsen and Brent Smith, with Mayor Terry Donahue, and council members RaQuishia Harrington and Annie Pollock absent) a synopsis of the selection process via a memo from Communications Director Nick Bergus in their packet for the Tuesday, Sept. 10, regular meeting. The North Liberty Parks and Recreation Commission reviewed a list of potential dog park names, submitted by the public, during a Friday, Sept. 5, meeting. The Parks and Rec. Commission, Johnson County Dog PAC and city staff whittled down 120 suggestions down to three finalists.
“Red Fern Dog Park” was chosen, Bergus explained, “because the name invokes a love of dogs, nature and classic literature with its reference to “Where the Red Fern Grows,” pulling together the park’s purpose, location and North Liberty’s connection to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) City of Literature (Iowa City).”
In 1961, Wilson Rawls wrote the children’s novel “Where the Red Fern Grows,” a story about a young boy named Billy and his two Redbone Coonhound hunting dogs Old Dan and Little Ann. After many adventures, the dogs save Billy from a mountain lion but Old Dan is seriously injured in the process. After Old Dan dies from his injuries, Little Ann gives up her will to live and dies a few days later. A red fern sprouts between the dogs’ graves with legend saying a red fern symbolizes sacred ground and only an angel can plant one.
Megan Lehman and Jake Villhauer, representing North Liberty Residents for a Dog Park, addressed the council to further explain the rationale behind the name, and the selection process. Among the criteria, they said, was not having any reference to a school district, due to the city having both Clear Creek Amana Community School District and Iowa City Community School District buildings, as well as Heritage Christian School. Also, nothing “cutesy” was considered, nor was anything offensive or that did not contribute to the purpose of the park.
What was considered included a sense of community pride, a timeless nature to the name (not subject to trends or fads), native (“feels of this place”), original (a name that stands out and would not be lost in the sea of park names) and have ease of use both for signage, pronunciation and ease of remembering. “K-9 Point,” and “Hilltop Dog Park” were the other two options considered, Villhauer said.
“We do know that some people might view ‘Red Fern’ as a strange choice with its connection to “Where the Red Fern Grows,” but we would argue that there is more of a show of loving compassion that a boy has for his dogs, in the book, than anything else,” Lehman said.
Councilor Madsen expressed her appreciation for honoring literacy but added her concern for Red Fern Dog Park, because of the death of the dogs, which Lehman alluded to in her comments.
“When you think about it, the red fern is growing on a gravesite. That’s sort of morbid, that we’re naming a dog park for two dead dogs, because we, after all, want our dogs to be alive, and healthy and playful there in the dog park.”
Madsen said, at first, she thought it was really neat to name the park based on literature in general and a book about dogs in particular. But ultimately, she found the red fern connection a little weird.
Villhauer responded, saying her concerns were brought up in discussions, with the decision made to focus on the boy’s love for his dogs, as opposed to their demise and the morbid outcome.
“It was very much a draw between ‘K-9 Point,” and ‘Red Fern,’” Lehman said. “Hilltop” was rejected, Villhauer said, due to the similarity with Hilltop Tavern in Iowa City. Lehman added “North Liberty Dog Park” was also rejected in case a second dog park was added later.
After a motion to approve the name was moved and seconded, Hoffman turned to Assistant City Administrator/City Clerk Tracey Mulcahey and said, “OK, Tracey, let’s make it official.”
Hoffman, Madsen, and Smith all voted aye.
Fencing and concrete work at the park should begin shortly with a pre-construction meeting scheduled for Friday, Sept. 13.