Franklin Town Manager Summer Woodard informed the board that due to an increase in requests for reservations to utilize the space have been frozen for the last several weeks, not permitting the public to use the space.
According to Woodard, there are two events planned for the Gazebo, one that was approved back in February by the board and another that was submitted over a month ago for Constitution Day, for which the board voted to approve Tuesday night.
Woodard said that the Gazebo has always been utilized frequently, with one to two requests from community and civic groups a month, however since COVID, the town has seen a significantly increase in groups requesting to use the space.
“Since COVID we are seeing one to two requests a week for the space,” said Woodard. “That is why we wanted to get some clear direction from town attorney and this board as to how to handle Gazebo reservations going forward.”
Town Attorney John Henning Jr., recommended placing a moratorium on the use of the Gazebo for as long as there is a State of Emergency declared in the state, to prohibit anyone other than the town from using the space.
Addressing free speech concerns, Henning noted that the county has designated the courthouse plaza a “free speech” zone, which allows anyone to gather to express their views and be heard, the town however, has not done the same for the Town Gazebo.
Council member Joe Collins requested to allow the continued use of the space for up to 50 people, as allowed under the current state Executive Order — however Henning noted that ensuring those guidelines are followed is taxing on the town.
Mayor Bob Scott said that his concern is that if you allow one group, you have to allow all or if you deny one, you have to deny all of them.
Council member David Culpepper said that he was under the assumption the town’s permitting process was strictly for scheduling issues and to ensure multiple events aren’t attempting to utilize the space at the same time and that he wasn’t comfortable limiting the use of the area for residents.
The Town of Franklin voted to issue a moratorium on reservations for the space and to only permit two events that had received prior board approval to be held.
Michael Stephens, Pastor for Franklin Church of God, spoke to the town of Franklin asking to reserve the Gazebo in conjunction with the National Prayer scheduled to occur Washington DC on September 26. Stephens noted that dozens of Pastors will be coming together for the event to pray for the Nation. The event is also scheduled to include music from Mountain Faith as well as several guest speakers such as Madison Cawthorn, candidate for NC’s 11th Congressional District.
Stephens submitted his request for the event, which has been dubbed Faith, Family, and Freedom, four weeks ago and requested the town to consider approving his permit to utilize the Gazebo as they had done earlier this year for Black Live Matters events as well as the Back the Blue Rally.
The event would also collect canned food for local families in need — however, the town of Franklin denied Stephens’ request and voted to no longer allow use of the space until after North Carolina lifts the current State of Emergency due to COVID19.
Woodard said that while applications like Stephens had been received by the town, town officials have halted considering them pending further discussion with council members.
Stephens noted after the meeting that he was disappointed that the town would not approve the request for the Faith, Family, and Freedom event be held at the Gazebo but that the event will still be held on September 26 at a different location.
Recently, a group of residents attempting to reserve the space for a Pumpkin-Fest Rally in October were also denied and were directed to use the Free Speech area at the courthouse Plaza for their demonstration.