Bill Francisco sat in his office and spread open a preliminary design of what he hopes will become a 28-acre environmental education park at the Sinking Creek wetlands on city property located off King Springs Road.
After explaining the benefits of the park, he leaned back in his chair and wiped tears from his eyes.
Jacob Francisco, one of Bill’s two sons, was 6 years old when he was contaminated with an E. coli bacteria from an unknown source. Flu-like symptoms quickly developed into renal kidney failure from hemolytic uremic syndrome, which spread the toxic bacteria to every body organ causing him to die on June 29, 2004.
“People are going to be more aware of the bacteria that’s in that creek,” said the still-grieving father. “(The park) will be a constant reminder that there’s bacteria in that creek, and it can kill. But I want this to be an environmental educational park. We don’t want asphalt out there. We don’t want lights. We don’t want to interrupt nature.”
Though no hard and fast evidence that E. coli from the creek was responsible for Jacob’s death, the family lives nearby and the children had played there on a regular basis, searching for crawdads and other forms of wildlife.
There’s little doubt about what drives Francisco, and he freely admits it.
“A few months before Jacob got sick he was riding in the car with his soccer mom,” he said slowly. “He told his mom he was going to be famous someday — that he was going to be on the cover of a magazine someday. What can I do for my son today?”
The question answers itself.
Francisco is on a mission to make others aware. He is energetically and wholeheartedly doing something today, tomorrow and the day after — and apparently he will be doing so for a long time to come.
One of his connections is with Gary Tysinger, with Johnson City’s Tysinger Hampton & Partners. Tysinger has created a proposed design for the park at the Sinking Creek wetlands, which could act in tandem as an expansion of the Sinking Creek Restoration Project.
The Boone Watershed Partnership and the city of Johnson City have been working together with the project, which is funded by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture to rid old septic systems from the stream banks and tributaries and connecting to city sewer. Cattle pasture runoff has been identified as a probable source of E. coli in the 10-mile-long stream, and efforts continue to get more agricultural collaboration in the restoration project.
A 19-acre city-owned parcel was first considered for the park, which the public would access from King Springs Road.
“I originally talked with Phil Pindzola (public works director), and I thought that land would make a great park,” Francisco said. “He called me back and said, ‘let’s talk.’ There was an adjacent 9.1-acre parcel owned by the city, so we checked into that. There was not even a blink of an eye, and that gave us 28 acres.”
The city is an active partner in the park plan, and Francisco said it probably would build a parking lot. He’s hoping that corporations and businesses will also take an interest and contribute. And, there’s always the possibility of using free labor to help build the planned boardwalk, gazebo and other amenities.
“We’re not building a nuclear power plant here,” he said. “We’re probably talking $500,000. The preliminary plans have a parking lot, a more than 2,000-linear-foot boardwalk and a gazebo where educational activities and lectures can be held. The gazebo overlooks the lowlands, and there is plenty of wildlife there and in the wetlands.”
He said once everyone gets their ducks in a row, the proposal would be taken to the community in the form of public meetings to discuss the idea.
“I know there may be some detractors, but it would provide such a benefit — it could change the way people think about the environment,” he said. “The benefits will be an increased awareness of dangerous levels of E. coli in Sinking Creek. That increased awareness will result in better practice management from creek residents.”
Other goals include providing access to primary and secondary educational institutions who can use the park to increase their interest in science. It also will provide public access for institutional research of wetlands and forest habitats, as well as encourage urban hiking in a natural area.
“A significant component to improving water quality is education, and the construction of a wetlands environmental center along Sinking Creek would be a vital element of that education process,” Pindzola said. “Conceptually, the city supports the creation of the wetlands park on existing city property and is working with Mr. Francisco and other interested parties to seek private funds for the design and construction of such a facility.”
The Jacob Francisco Memorial Lecture will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday at the ETSU Quillen College of Medicine. It is a medical lecture directed at health care professionals, and the public is welcome.
The lecture, titled “Walkerton Health Study: Lessons from a Waterborne Outbreak of Acute Gastroenteritis,” will be presented by Dr. John Marshall, who has treated long-term affects of many of the victims from a waterborne E. coli outbreak in 2000 in Walkerton, Ontario.
More information about this outbreak can be found at www.cbc.ca/news/background/walkerton/.