THAT WAS THEN: The mayor didn’t mention a “golf entertainment venue when he outlined plans for a tax increase to improve War Memorial Park.

I’ve finally received a limited response from Mayor Frank Scott Jr.’s administration to questions about the news that broke last night about the city seeking bids for a golf entertainment venue in War Memorial Park.

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This was effectively an official secret until Rock City Eats leaked news and then Arkansas Blog sounded the alarm.

Here’s the response from Stephanie Jackson, the private PR consultant Scott has added to the city payroll to run interference for him and serve as a block between direct communication with city employees, a key point highlighted:

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The City hopes and anticipates that it will receive multiple proposals from businesses interested in creating a golf entertainment or entertainment leisure site at War Memorial Park. This RFP was not tailored for a specific business, and in fact it is written so that various companies may submit a proposal. While the R3 Parks Task Force did not recommend a golf entertainment site at War Memorial Park, a golf entertainment site would align with the Task Force’s recommendations. Additionally, the Task Force recommendations to create a multi-purposed park including a regional youth sports complex, trails, and enhanced public green spaces remains a top priority for the Park’s close to 90 acres.

The city proposal (bids to be opened July 22) is tailored in language used to describe  Topgolf, a Dallas-based developer of bar/restaurants with high-tech driving ranges. No matter if it’s rigged for them or not. A lack of competition for the project isn’t the problem. The problem is the project itself, whatever the brand.

Jackson’s response won’t quell the rising tempest. Among those not informed about it: The city Parks and Recreation Commission, the city director, Capi Peck, who is the liaison to Parks and Recreation; the advisory committee appointed by the mayor to consider new uses for the War Memorial Park acreage freed by his closure of the golf course.

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Got it? We had to close a golf course because not enough people played it and now we need to replace it with a fancy golf driving range, an idea never discussed by any of those who spent long hours reimagining War Memorial Park.

Here’s how we summarized the R3 Parks Task Force when it was submitted in January.

Jesse Gibson, chairman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, also spoke at the meeting, saying that the commission fully supported the recommendations of the parks task force. He shared six improvements that he said were key to the futures of Hindman and War Memorial parks: more commercial activities available in parks, such as the proposed restaurant in the former War Memorial golf course clubhouse; the creation of softball, baseball and soccer fields; a “championship level disc golf course” and other responses to “emerging sports;” improved “connectivity” and accessibility for the city’s entire parks system; professional mountain biking trails; and the recommendations of the zoo task force for the future of the facility and organization.

“I think that the citizens of Little Rock, when they see this idea, when they see what War Memorial can become, when they see what Hindman can become, I think they will support this whole-heartedly,” Gibson said. “In fact, I think they won’t suffer these ideas. I think they’ll demand these ideas. I think that the public would want them, it will be a desirable thing, it will enhance their city, it will enhance their opportunities for leisure and recreation, and I think it will be something that is a net positive for everyone.”

Does an 18-acre driving range align with what Gibson outlined? 18 acres is almost 20 percent of the available true park space in War Memorial, when stadium, parking lots, fitness center and zoo are removed from the total.

Here’s how Scott himself talked of park improvements when he announced a penny sales tax campaign for parks and other uses. It was shelved after the coronavirus pandemic developed.

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Scott said the sales tax increase would serve as a dedicated source of funding for the Parks Department and the Little Rock Zoo, allowing the city to implement “many of the recommendations of the R3 Parks task force.” Those recommendations include the repurposing of War Memorial and Hindman Parks to feature “open lawn entertainment,” an indoor sports complex and a senior center. The zoo expansion would include new exhibits for giraffes, bears, red wolves and razorback hogs.

Who’s driving this land grab for a private developer? The mayor is the only possible answer. Can he get away with it?

Lots of people like Topgolf (or its equivalent). Enough to give up the lungs of Little Rock for a current fad and 30 pieces of silver? Again, the problem isn’t Topgolf. We suggest that they strike a deal with a private landowner in Little Rock, as they did in Rogers.

This is what Bryan Day, a former parks director and now director of the Little Rock Port, said to me after learning of the proposal. He’s among the parks advisory task force members who were surprised by the news.

“As an old parks guy, I have consistently been opposed to any and all encroachments upon any public park land.  Be it infrastructure, utilities, private investment, disposition of lands, or any other action related to limiting or minimizing use of public park lands, encroachments are detrimental to park inventory.”

And I’ll repeat what Jesse Gibson, the Parks and Rec commission chairman, said after learning he too had been blindsided:

Unfortunately with the pandemic, board and commission meetings have been suspended, so we have not had a meeting since our March meeting. But the Commission was not consulted about Top Golf or the RFP. Our Commission had quite a few meetings about the usage of War Memorial, and I presented our consensus to the Board in January. That consensus did not include Top Golf, and in fact discouraged commercial activities save for limited offerings that were in spirit with the outdoor nature of the park. This was news to me, and I predict we will discuss it at length when we are allowed to meet again.

UPDATE: Add City Director Kathy Webb, who represents the neighborhood, to those opposed to this idea.

I don’t support this idea. The task force had some great ideas and recommendations and I hope we move forward with them!