Richard Rosen is excited about the future of downtown Frankfort’s tree canopy — so excited that he had offered to chip in around $80,000 to a plan that would add more than 350 trees of various types to the downtown area, and create what he calls an “urban arboretum.”
He had been working on the plan with a group that included current and former city arborists Alex Cunningham and Andrew Cammack, as well as former Parks Director Jim Parrish.
That plan, based on a study done in February 2019 by Urban Canopy Works LLC of Northern Kentucky, had been presented to the commission last November, but no further action has been taken recently. Rosen said the ostensible roadblock was funding.
Rosen, who previously donated $500,000 to the Franklin County Humane Society for a new animal shelter, said he called Cunningham over the summer and floated the idea of funding a majority of the project.
The group met once and laid out plans for meeting again to further review how implementation of the plan would work before bringing it to the city.
“We were reviewing the specification for how trees are to be planted, a plan for contacting homeowners, a press release — trying to get that stuff done by November,” Rosen said. “There was a goal of having walkways that would create an urban arboretum, with signage and the whole deal … something that we could promote and advertise to get visitors here.”
The morning the next meeting was scheduled, Rosen said, Cunningham called him and told him that interim City Manager Tommy Russell asked her not to work on the project.
Rosen, confused, said he called Russell and asked him why.
“We weren’t sure about any of the pricing,” Russell said. “I suggested with him that we were going to retool the program and get the numbers right … maybe get the public involved with funds to purchase a tree in memory of a loved one. If he still wanted to get involved in the program, he absolutely could.”
Russell said that their conversation was “very cordial” and that he did not refuse Rosen’s money, but Rosen says that he left the conversation with a bad taste in his mouth.
In an email follow-up to the conversation, Russell said that the goal was to engage the public more in the plan and then implement it in 2021.
“It's our goal that we are going to be able to offer the opportunity for the community to be able to assist in the implementation, and we will welcome you to be part of that,” Russell wrote.
Rosen’s response: “Thank you for your note. Good luck.”
Rosen said that he was well aware that the February 2019 plan was just a starting point, and that working out the details of actions to follow was the point of the group he had formed.
“They sat on it (the Urban Canopy Works plan) for a year and a half and didn’t do a damn thing about it,” Rosen said.
He believes the plan was sidelined because of his ongoing feud with Mayor Bill May.
“I think the real story is Bill May and Tommy Russell acting on their own without input or decision from the entire commission deciding to squelch a really good opportunity,” Rosen said. “I think Bill May is pushing this whole thing. He’s been after me because I’ve been critical of him in the past.”
Both Richard Rosen and his wife, Anna Marie Rosen, made headlines this year and last — Anna Marie lost a bid for city commission by just eight votes, and Richard pledged, retracted and later re-pledged $500,000 to the humane society.
After a series of controversies at the Frankfort Plant Board, May elected to not reappoint Anna Marie Rosen, who was serving as chair of the municipal utility's board, and Vice Chair Walt Baldwin. Richard Rosen was very critical of that decision in a State Journal guest column.
May said that the decision to put the tree plan’s implementation on hold was not personal, and that he would welcome Rosen’s contribution later.
“I understand sometimes people hear things differently than what they're meant when you're talking to somebody, but you know, and we would be very appreciative to have anybody's support, especially for planting trees," May said. "That's a program near and dear to me.”
May and the rest of the city commission recently approved a decision to make Cunningham the next city arborist.
“It’s that we're not able to get a specific amount until we get the urban forestry plan updated,” May said.
What the urban forestry plan is, and how it differs from the Urban Canopy Works plan, isn’t clear.
Frankfort Parks Director Shawn Pickens did not respond to a request for comment by press time Thursday.
When asked for a copy of the latest plan, Frankfort Tree Board Chair Bobby Stone shared an old State Journal article describing the Urban Canopy Works plan. Stone said the plan will be tweaked and updated, then phased in over the next three to five years.
Updating that plan is just what Rosen said he and his team were working on.
In their phone conversation, which took place in September, Russell also said that he mentioned to Rosen the fact that his wife was running for city commission.
“Well, I know that,” Richard Rosen responded. “I’ve met the woman.”
He said he then assured Russell that any work his group might have done would be “behind the scenes” and not intended to help his wife’s run for elected office.
Rosen said that he would not provide money to the city during May's administration, which ends next month, but that he’s spoken with Mayor-elect Layne Wilkerson, who he said “thinks it’s a great idea.”
“They’ve delayed it,” Rosen said. “… we should have been planting trees this fall. But It’s not the end of the world. We can go forward from that point in January.”
“We’ve got a mayor who should be embracing this kind of work,” Rosen said “… instead he’s like a dog walking by a tree lifting up his leg to pee on it.”