Jesse Gibson, chairman of Little Rock Parks Commission Brian Chilson

Jesse Gibson is a Little Rock lawyer and chairman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, which plays an advisory role in city parks issues and is involved in the repurposing of War Memorial and Hindman parks, now that their golf courses have been closed. Gibson and the commission have recommended to a task force created by Mayor Frank Scott such ideas as commercial activities, such as a restaurant; a competitive-level soccer and baseball/softball complex; a disc golf course and pro mountain bike trails at Hindman Park; connectivity of the parks and improved access to War Memorial; and an expanded Little Rock Zoo. We asked him about the future of Little Rock’s parks.

I think it’s safe to say that many people in Little Rock are unaware that there is a parks commission.

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Yes. What I hoped to do as president is be a little bit more public, more out front with the issues … have the community be more engaged. I think since I’ve been on the commission, we’ve been a better commission. … It’s a very engaged commission now. The enabling legislation says we’re supposed to advise the board, but I think it’s also to assist the board of directors, especially where parks [as an agency] is heading. We’re not only creating a vision of the parks, but implementing a vision of the parks.

You’ve been on the commission for three years and its president for two. Why are you interested?

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It probably stems from my kids. They’re 11 and 7 years old and we have utilized the parks since they were born. When we lived in Hillcrest, they used the Prospect Terrace Park.

An issue for the parks department is its budget cut. It amounted to about $1 million and job cuts?

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I know no one that works for parks is thrilled about it. But I think what [Mayor Frank Scott and the City Board] hope for is short-term pain for long-term growth. … I’m hoping that long-term there’s a way to provide a vision to the board and citizens for park repurposes, especially Hindman and War Memorial, and citywide. It’s going to take a vision and it’s likely going to take dedicated funding.

Little Rock, unlike larger urban areas, is close to woods and areas for people to get away from it all. Does that make it harder to drum up interest in repurposing War Memorial and Hindman?

It sounds so bizarre to say — when I grew up we didn’t have nearly so much to compete with our attention — we have to almost schedule activity time with the kids. There’s so many things competing. That might be the way some people view parks. They’re maybe not front-of-mind. However, when people are provided with more than just a theoretical vision [of a park] and they can see what it can be … I think people will really get behind it.

When this whole process started, there were two things I was concerned about. One was that given the parks commission has a role and the mayor’s task and the zoo is hand in glove [with developing War Memorial], I was worried that there was going to be a disparate range of ideas. Almost like overwhelming to provide to the board. It really wasn’t like that. We all funneled toward the same ideas. I thought, this is the way it is supposed to work. … How do you go to the citizens with a smorgasbord of ideas of ideas? But it came down to four or five things.

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The second concern was a sense of stasis from the public. We don’t like change. We are nostalgic about that area [War Memorial]. There’s always going to be some of that. But it hasn’t been as prevalent as I expected. I think people can see that a big, bold vision, especially for War Memorial, would be a net positive for the city.

In March 2018, consultants hired to assess needs at War Memorial Stadium and the park suggested selling off parkland for such things as multifamily housing and a hotel. Is that under consideration?

I don’t think anyone supports the sale of parkland. I don’t think the mayor does, I don’t think the commission does. I’ve not heard any talk about that. I don’t think the public would get behind that. The first recommendation we did have was to include, in keeping with the whole idea of not selling parkland, was some kind of commercial activity — food and beverage, leaseholds you could enter into. That was something the commission strongly supported

Here’s what our vision [of a park] was: A place you can go with a family and spend all day doing different things. Maybe you’ve got sister in a softball tournament and little brother gets bored — the zoo is there. The team goes to lunch after the game at a restaurant [in the park] and the family spends the day in the park. That’s what our vision is: Get kids from all neighborhoods in there and use it for multiple things.

Most of the young folks — that was one of the things that always came up [in the parks surveys taken in 2019]. That “there has to be something that draws me in there.”

What about the Top Golf idea that the mayor floated?

Top Golf is like a Chuck E. Cheese’s for golf. I think social media got out in front of the facts. … I don’t see that. No one has come to our commission. I have no knowledge that is coming.

Where would the soccer and baseball fields go?

The best place … is a spot where the 18th fairway comes up to the clubhouse, along Markham Street. There’s a lot of flat ground there. It would have to be graded, but it’s where the grading would be the least.

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What about the idea of connecting Hindman Park with Western Hills park, which just won a federal $750,000 improvement grant?

I think there’s a desire to do that. … That’s the idea of all these parks: That you can get from one to another via mountain bike or walking.

The thing about Hindman is a lot of people have come to the commission about disc golf in the last two years. What’s out there now is a temporary course. But we’ve come to realize that if you have a course designed by a renowned designer, you can draw not only from the state but regionally. We’ve had people provide information from other states where hundreds come to compete in disc golf.

I’ve learned about two sports: Disc golf and pickle ball. Pickle ball — it’s a thing. We just built new pickleball courts at Kanis Park. There’s more demand for pickleball courts.

The big problem is money. Would the ballparks be owned by private entities? Is that how they would get built?

Funding is always an issue.

I think we would like a private partner, but not private ownership. The best way to attract private funding is public funding as a baseline. It’s important to look at private partners, but the best way to do that is to illustrate the commitment of the city. They [private donors] don’t want to feel like they’re paying the freight. Bentonville is a great example. They certainly have the benefit of business [contributions]. It’s a little bold, but I hope we can match that. Most private donors who want to be involved don’t want to feel like “if I do this I now own that park.”

What I hope we can do as a city is to illustrate to private business that we are committed to doing this, to making a big bold change, in the form of dedicated funding for parks. If we do that, I think we’ll see more private investment.

Dedicated funding? A bond issue?

Everything is on the table, from a bond issue to a dedicated sales tax. The zoo has done a lot of research [that found] a half-cent to a cent could generate $25 million to $50 million. Then, of course, the current budget would be available for other things. The $11 million for parks could be used for other things. There could be a 10-year sunset on the tax.

So how do you promote that?

It’s always what the people want. I think if the people see the vision and what it can be, they’ll get behind it. I think the mayor is going to be of assistance. He’s been very out front; he wants to see the city take a bolder direction.

We have a wide range of people on our commission. You engage in your communities, have open events in the parks. Having worked on a lot of campaigns in my time, I know that shoe leather goes a long way. Step two: What is the next step? You don’t just say this is what we want to do. You’ve got to be willing to get in the fray a little bit.

How much undeveloped area should there be in War Memorial?

Good question. There’s a wide array of what you can do. I would love to see outdoor activities, like rock climbing walls, or just leaving some of it undeveloped for hiking.

[Unlike the more wooded and hilly Hindman], War Memorial having been a golf course so long it doesn’t have rugged hiking.

When [the commission] started our discussion, I’d just gotten back from San Diego, which has Balboa Park. I stumbled on an organ concert there. I thought, “Wouldn’t something like this be great?” I had a great spot for it. No. 6, the downhill par 3, is almost a natural amphitheater. Then someone pointed out there’s road noise [laughs].

Things that would be different might draw people in that might not otherwise go hiking. There’s even talk of a dog park. It’s just an idea. I would like some to be undeveloped for hiking or picnicking.

There are two huge employers right there, [CHI] St. Vincent and [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences] that I think would be extremely bought in to the development of that area. I think they would benefit from a place where their employees could be active during their lunch hour, and we could filter employees from those two places into the park.

What about War Memorial Stadium? How does it impact planning for the park?

It’s a weird dance. The stadium’s got obligations once every two years to provide parking for the [Razorback] football game. Nobody knows what’s going to happen to with that five years from now, 10 years from now.

The impact from those games is damage [to the ground] from cars. It was agreed to long ago: That [the parks department has] an obligation to provide parking. [Game goers] are allowed to park all the way up Markham and back adjacent to University. And there has been damage.

It’s like the big elephant in the room. In a charette years ago, people suggested even tearing down the stadium.

It’s a touchy subject. People do like having that [Razorback] game in Little Rock. Having a better football team might change attendance [laughs]. Revenue [to the stadium from the UA] is a big side of it.

Tell me about yourself.

I’m originally from a little town called Lead Hill, in Boone County, between Harrison and Branson. If you know where Lead Hill, I always say, you’ve got a road map and a lot of gas. My parents taught school in a little town called Bergman. I’ve been here [in Little Rock] since 1996. I want to the U of A for undergrad, and [William H. Bowen School of Law] in Little Rock for law school.

You mentioned campaigning.

I’m a Democrat; I ran for the legislature in 2006, in a four-way primary. I’ve been active in Democratic politics for a long time. I just finished a term as president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association. So I was point man in the Issue 1 [which would have capped attorney’s fees and damage awards] campaign.

I have a general practice. As a solo practioner, you’ve got to do what comes in the door. I do personal injury cases and also business litigation.

So give me the elevator speech on the need for parks, that you’ll take to the citizens. What’s repurposing the parks about?

Big change. Big change new concepts. Meaning, let’s not keep doing what we’ve done with parks for last 50 years: creating an outdoor space and leaving people to their own devices to figure out how to use it. Let’s have both facilities and programming to make [parks] more conducive to engage younger people who are going to be the people to utilize the park for the next 50 years. What I mean by that is facilities in the form of commercial activities, facilities in the form of a climbing wall, nature centers, programs like events like the Running of the Rexes [a fundraiser in which folks run dressed up like Tyrannosaurus Rex], cross country 5Ks. Big, bold change … you don’t have to have an open field and figure out how to use it.

How do you stir up interest in people who won’t ever go to a park?

It’s quality of life. Even if you may not use the park, it makes your community more attractive. You may not choose to take advantage of it, but it’s the quality of life that makes your property, your home, your city a better place to live, a better place to attract business, better place to keep and attract new talent to your city. I keep going back to Bentonville, but it’s a draw. It’s a draw for younger people to want to live in that community. It’s a draw for people who might be from that community to not to want to leave — something Little Rock has struggled with.

There’s no interest now in selling parkland, but Little Rock is selling its Section 14 park in distant West Little Rock because of maintenance problems. What about maintaining parks?

The challenge to our parks department is we have a lot of parks. Sixty-some-odd. The way they’ve acquired property over decades has sometimes not even been planned. It’s like bringing a puppy home. Bringing a puppy home is the easy part. Taking care of it is the hard part. I’m not being critical, but, speaking bluntly, some parks are not utilized the way they could be, to the extent that they should. What do we do with some of these parks that came into our possession? I don’t want to give away parkland, but maybe less would be more, make what you have really good. That’s what’s going to happen with Rebsamen. There’s a desire to make Rebsamen a destination course. … I hope that will happen.