Building trust must be priority for Bluffton dog park group

info@islandpacket.comJuly 22, 2013 

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Bluffton's James Haberberger, right, brings up fundraising ideas during a Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks meeting July 8 at the Bluffton library. The nonprofit has had to regroup after most of its money was taken from its bank account.

SARAH WELLIVER — Staff photo Buy Photo

Supporters of a Bluffton dog park have worked for nearly a decade to bring their goal to fruition, and now they have the very difficult task of asking the community to help again in the wake of a theft that nearly emptied their nonprofit group's bank account.

The situation was made all the worse by the suicide of the group's former president, who had been charged with stealing more than $10,000 from Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks.

Rebuilding trust might be difficult, but it can be achieved with a clear set of procedures for how donated money will be handled. The goal to build and maintain a 1.5-acre dog park at Buckwalter Regional Park is still a good one, and we hope the community will support it.

William Grooms, who had been president since 2011, was accused of stealing as much as $19,000 from the group's bank account since June 2012, the group's new president, Charles Bumgardner, told investigators.

Grooms was the only authorized signatory for the account; his wife was treasurer and also faces charges in connection with the theft. Grooms used the money to pay off gambling and other debts, according to a statement he gave police.

Grooms had told the board before his arrest in June that the group was nearing its $40,000 goal. Now it has only $661, Bumgardner reported July 8.

Despite this major setback, the group isn't all the way back to square one. It has an agreement with the town of Bluffton, which owns the park property, and Beaufort County, which operates the park, to lease 1.5 acres for $1 a year. The group is to be responsible for maintenance and construction, according to the agreement signed in May 2011. It has to post a $10,000 surety bond and acquire $1 million worth of liability insurance. The lease is good through 2016.

Some have suggested going to Beaufort County for funding given the group's current circumstances, but that's probably not a productive idea. The county and the town have made clear over the years what they expected the group to accomplish.

The group had estimated it would cost $40,000 to get the park open, about what it cost to build Hilton Head Island's dog park at Chaplin Community Park. That park was built with donated construction work and a fundraising drive.

Friends of Bluffton Dog Parks has its work cut out. But if the community supports a public dog park for the area, it can be done.

Long-time dog park advocate and dog trainer Abby Bird points out that the effort to date has been supported by relatively few people.

"For years, we've been pulling every dollar we can out of the community," Bird said. "The last fundraiser we did ... has probably been the best one yet, but we're only talking about dozens of people, when we have thousands of dog owners in this community."

It will take more than the effort of a few diehard supporters to pull this off. The next meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Bluffton library. The group hopes to fill six open board seats. Those who want a dog park should step up now and be prepared to work for the long haul.

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