On Friday morning, Knox County commissioner Jeff Ownby pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of public indecency. That charge stemmed from an arrest in May 2012 when police caught Ownby having oral sex with another man at a public park.
The park where Ownby was arrested is Sharp's Ridge Memorial Park in North Knoxville. As the highest point in Knoxville, the ridge stands as a beacon full of broadcast towers and provides visitors with arguably the best scenic overlooks of Knoxville.
"On a clear day you can see the Smoky Mountains really well. You can see the whole skyline and we have a map up here to identify all of the peaks, like right there you see Clingman's Dome. And of course you can see all of downtown and the Sunsphere," said Joe Walsh, director of Knoxville's Parks and Recreation Department.
The elevation at Sharp's Ridge also attracts flocks of migratory birds in the spring. Not surprisingly, it also attracts crowds of bird-watchers.
"We use it for the bird club to lead field trips. The views up there are fantastic," said Tony Headrick with the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. "The varieties of birds that make their way through make it an ideal spot. We use it really heavily for about one month out of the year with our morning bird walks."
Even though Sharp's Ridge is easy to reach and offers the best
birds-eye view in town, the park does not attract as many visitors as it could. The main obstacle that steers visitors away is the park's longtime reputation as a place where gay men cruise
in search of a sexual encounter.
"This has been a problem at Sharp's Ridge for decades, I'm afraid," said Walsh. "Once you get a bad reputation, it's hard to live it down. But we have worked with the Knoxville Police Department and things have improved."
KPD has dedicated eight officers specifically to monitor the parks, trails, and green-ways in Knoxville. While the increased police presence has reduced illegal activity, the city says the people who can do the most to discourage illegal activity are legitimate park visitors.
A group that cruises on two wheels may hold the key to reclaiming Sharp's Ridge as a place the entire public can enjoy.
"We have worked closely with the Appalachian
Mountain Bike Club. They have spent their weekends and evenings building multi-use hiking and biking soft-surface trails all along the south slope of the ridge. Hopefully, when everything is done there will be a total of about three miles of trails. They've already built one long trail and it is great. The soil on the ridge is sandy and drains really well, so the trails do not stay muddy," said Walsh.
Walsh admitted the current challenge of eliminating the stigma at Sharp's Ridge is a catch-22. People may not want to visit the park due to illegal activity, but people are the key to getting rid of the indecent behavior.
"The people who do this kind of activity want somewhere secluded. If there are people up here hiking, picnicking, and using the park at unpredictable hours of the day, then those people here for the wrong reason will go somewhere else," said Walsh.
Walsh said the patrols are not meant to target the homosexual community.
"It does not matter if they are gay or straight. If they are doing
things they shouldn't be in the park, take it to the privacy of your own
home and do what you want to. This is a public space and there are laws
as to what you can and cannot do in public," said Walsh. "We want people to know this is a safe place and a beautiful place to take your family."
Headrick said he has already noticed an improvement in the atmosphere at Sharp's Ridge as the crowds of bird-watchers have grown through the years.
"I've been doing these field trips since 1992 and in those early days the cruising issue was really a nuisance. The increased police patrols helped and the parks and rec guys keeping the park clean has really helped. Keep it clean and keep it patrolled all the time. Every year it [cruising] has gotten less and less and then this year it was almost none. I think people get wise to when there will be groups of people around and stay away. I think it's a great idea. I think the more it's used the better."
With better trails and increased traffic, the city says people will ultimately create a more welcoming environment for everyone to enjoy an underused park and rediscover one of Knoxville's prized possessions.