Freeda Cathcart. G Marrano photo

As she promised, Freda Cathcart – one of the vocal opponents of the proposed coffee shop at Fishburn Park that was not approved by Roanoke City Council – has submitted an alternative proposal for the old caretaker’s cottage. Cathcart and Roni Sutton propose to leverage a no-interest loan for $100,000 combined with volunteer efforts to renovate Fishburn Cottage. The City of Roanoke would maintain ownership and management of the building.

(news release) Roanoke, VA – On Thursday, June 1, Freeda Cathcart and Roni Sutton submitted a formal proposal (attached) to the Roanoke City manager and the Roanoke City Council to renovate and maintain the house in Fishburn Park. They were inspired by the philanthropy of Blair Fishburn and his vision that resulted in the creation of Fishburn Park (see attached 1935 news article).

The Roanoke City Parks and Recreation Advisory Board sent letters to the Roanoke City Council in 2018 and in 2022 asking them to remove the house from sale and to place it back in the Parks and Recreation Department so arrangements could be made for the renovation.

In December 2020, Cathcart and Sutton had been in dialogue with Bob Cowell, the Roanoke City manager, about their offer to renovate the house. Cowell’s last email said that he would take their information to the Roanoke City Council and that either he or someone from his department would get back to them. Instead of following through with his promise, the economic development department sent out an e-blast asking for proposals. Cathcart and Sutton didn’t receive the e-blast and were unaware of the call for proposals (see attached revised timeline).

In April 2023, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board voted unanimously to oppose the sale of the house and land in Fishburn Park to the vanBlaricoms. On May 15, the Roanoke City Council voted 6-1 to not rezone the park. The vanBlaricoms zoning application was significantly different from their proposal that the contract was based on. In less than 24 hours after the council’s vote, Cathcart submitted a request to city management asking for next steps to be able to submit a proposal. She received an acknowledgement from the city manager and the director of Parks and Recreation Department that the request had been received but there were no instructions on how and where to submit a proposal. To date she has received no response from the Economic Development Department or Chris Chittum (link to emails).

Their proposal is to access private wealth and grants to renovate the house to benefit the public. Their proposal is in alignment with the Parks and Recreation Master Plan and the new 2020-2040 City Comprehensive Plan. Their proposal differs from the vanBlaricoms effort to purchase an acre of parkland and the house for $10 to use as equity to launch a private commercial business using the public’s wealth for their private enterprise. The vanBlaricom’s proposal wasn’t in alignment with the Parks and Recreation Master Plan or the City’s Comprehensive Plan.

If Roanoke City decides to create an ordinance to allow private vendors to have concessions in park buildings, then their proposal would allow for the possibility of a future coffee shop in Fishburn Park. Cathcart and Sutton have the experience and the ability to successfully renovate and maintain the house. They know what’s involved to complete the project to repurpose a blighted house to a place for nonprofits and the public to enjoy.