PORTSMOUTH — A request to name a still-to-be built park along North Mill Pond after a late developer has created a debate about how public parks should be named.
Stebbins, who was Johnston’s sometime business partner, along with Procon’s chair and CEO, grew up in Manchester. Stebbins died at age 67 in June 2021.
“Mark lived in Portsmouth and supported many community efforts to make the city enjoyable and welcoming to all,” Johnston said in a letter to the City Council.
Several residents balked at the idea of naming the park after Stebbins.
The park is slated to be located on land behind 3S Artspace and the AC Hotel and is part of the larger planned North Mill Pond trail and greenway.
During a recent City Council meeting, Esther Kennedy, a former city councilor, said she was “taken a little bit aback” by the request.
“I encourage you all to really set up a committee to really look at the naming,” Kennedy said. “I really think we need to have a committee … to really think and walk through naming of these parks, benches, things in our city,” she added.
Urban renewal families one idea for naming Portsmouth park
Kennedy suggested naming the park after hundreds of families who lost their homes decades ago in Portsmouth's North End to urban renewal, which involved removing homes to be replaced by new construction.
She specifically pointed to the late public servant Evelyn Marconi. She also named Jim Splaine, who has served the city in multiple positions, including assistant mayor multiple times, state senator, Police Commission member and School Board member. Splaine has said he was a teenager in 1966 when urban renewal was approved in Portsmouth, taking his family's home.
“Personally, I think that should be named for people that lived over there and had their houses stolen, basically our Italian population,” Kennedy said, again citing urban renewal. “And that little park I think would be perfect to make our name in dedication for all those people who lost their homes."
Resident Mark Brighton suggested naming the park after Brighton’s father, Ray Brighton.
He referenced the book his father wrote about the city called “They Came to Fish: A brief look at Portsmouth’s 350 years of history.”
“After his family, my father loved this city,” Brighton said.
His father spent decades researching the book, “simply for the love of this city,” Brighton said.
Reached Tuesday, Splaine said, "I do think that naming anything-public deserves some discussion, not just a letter requesting such, and the city is long overdue in setting up a clear process."
"Naming parks and city buildings and streets should be done with history in mind. It's different, of course, for private land and private buildings, but for areas of public use we need a process," Splaine said. "On this one, I think that Mark Brighton makes excellent points. And his observation about his dad, who I knew very well and who contributed greatly to Portsmouth in so many ways, is right on."
Mayor Deaglan McEachern said it will “be good to have a discussion” on the issue “and specifically for me to highlight some of the things that I got to know Mark was doing while we went through COVID.”
Stebbins served on the city's COVID Response Task Force, McEachern reminded the council during a recent meeting.
Reached Monday, Rick Becksted, the former mayor who appointed Stebbins to the committee, said he too believes the park would be better dedicated “to all the family members who lost their homes.”
“That’s something that’s always been talked about,” he said.
At the same time, Becksted called Stebbins “a very nice man who did help the community. He made a lot of money in the community, too."
Becksted believes it would be appropriate to name the North End park after the families who suffered through urban renewal.
“If it wasn’t for urban renewal and the families who had their homes taken away from them, we wouldn’t have the development you see today,” Becksted said.
City Council's next steps on naming park
The council voted to hold a work session on the naming of the park. A date for that meeting has not yet been scheduled.
City Councilor Kate Cook said it “might be worthwhile for the council to have a discussion around the policy of naming various parks and buildings, and how we move forward with that process in the future.
“We could have lots and lots of requests to name individual buildings or parks after people in town,” she said. “I want to make sure we have clear guidelines that we’re following when we’re doing so.”
There is not yet a timeline for when the park will be completed.
3S Artspace to honor Stebbins
3S Artspace on Monday announced plans to honor Mark Stebbins, putting out a call for an artist or team of artists "to create an original, site-specific sculpture" in his honor at the 145 Maplewood Ave. venue
"We want this sculpture, and the surrounding area, to be a site where you can spend a quiet moment feeling your spirit lifted by the things that gave Mark such joy in life: water, light, and the natural spectacle of the daily sunset," the announcement reads on the venue's Facebook page. The statement says 3S Artspace wants to recognize Stebbins' "extraordinary support of 3S Artspace and the Portsmouth cultural community as a whole," adding Stebbins' family members and colleagues will manage the project.
3S Artpsace is directing artists to apply by Nov. 15 deadline at tinyurl.com/mark-stebbins-sculpture-call. The contact person isTracey Pelton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Portsmouth debates naming North Mill Pond park for Mark Stebbins