Mayor Frank Scott Jr. took to Facebook yesterday to put some spin on his so-far-widely-panned idea to let a sports bar have 18 acres of the 200 available in War Memorial Park from closure of the golf course for a pricey sports bar with a lighted  driving range surrounded by 100-foot fences where people are now freely roam green space.

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The responses were many (189 at my last count) and overwhelmingly negative. One commenter with a chamber of commerce/real estate development resume endorsed using parkland to raise revenue. This is the metaphorical equivalent of a phrase I first heard from Joycelyn Elders: “Eating your seed corn.” If we start piecing off parks in the name of city cash, where does it stop?

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I posted to the Arkansas Times Facebook page Scott’s post. It has drawn 70 comments so far, which you can read at the link. Again, uniformly negative. This follows some 600 negative comments on two Facebook pages maintained by City Director Capi Peck, an outspoken opponent of the idea.

I called attention to the negative outpouring on Twitter, the mayor’s favored social media channel. He responded  quickly that I’ve misrepresented his proposal, though he listed no specific misrepresentations other than to object to my saying he’d gotten an “earful” in Facebook comments. He tweeted:

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Earful? Those in disagreement are the exact same from other opponents. We listen to all voices unlike you.

I couldn’t quite get his meaning. Did he mean that repetition of the same objections — conversion of parkland; preference for green space; support for Topgolf elsewhere in Little Rock, but not in a park; dismissal of recommendations of groups that have studied use of this land;  the mayor’s unannounced decision to put this land out for bids — somehow count as one vote? (It is true some of the comments came from some of the six people who rose at the last City Board meeting to object to the plan.)

A few responses to the mayor’s spin on this idea:

  1. It’s true the city is short of money. But better to preserve undeveloped green space now and wait for better finances to do what the R3 task force recommended for War Memorial.
  2. The city is merely seeking ideas, he says. Yes. But it is seeking one very specific idea designed to attract a proposal from a private company, Topgolf,  Scott has tried to recruit to the city. Why this? Why now? Why was it floated without notice to the many interested parties — City Board, Parks and Recreation Commission, the advisory task force on War Memorial use and neighborhood associations.
  3. Other cities have partnered with private interests. The mayor listed Central Park and the High Line (NYC), Forest Park (St. Louis), Boston Common, Olympic Centennial Park (Atlanta), City Park (New Orleans), and Millennium Park (Chicago). These strike me as poor comparisons. Central Park is more than 800 acres. It has a restaurant in the boathouse and the historic Tavern on the Green, but the parking lots are minimal. Neither has a lighted driving range with 100-foot fences. The High Line is conversion of a 1.5-mile rail line through lower Manhattan. It drew private support and links to private businesses on either side. The line itself is entirely a free public park. The 50-acre Boston Common is a park. When the pond freezes, people ice skate. The fabulous Forest Park in St. Louis? 1,300 acres chock full of museums, zoo and other amenities. Centennial Park in Atlanta, 22 acres created has a ferris wheel. The beautiful 1,300-acre City Park in New Orleans includes museums, trails and, yes, an 18-ride amusement park (admission $4; a “bay” at Topgolf rents for $45 an hour at night, drinks extra). The 24-acre Millennium Park in Chicago was created out of a rail yard and sits atop a parking garage. It includes gardens and trails and an ice rink.

The mayor insists the public will be heard further after bids are opened in early August. Ultimately, if he insists on pushing this he’ll need five votes on the 10-member city board and have to break the tie to pass the proposal. At the moment, Directors Peck, Kathy Webb and now Ken Richardson have expressed adamant opposition. Only Director Doris Wright has expressly said positive things about it among the other six.

Richardson reminded me this morning that he’d played the old golf course, one of the most diversely used facilities in the city. He notes that the vacant green space, the Zoo and the fitness center all remain used by one of the most diverse crowds in the city — black, white, rich, poor, young, old. He’s worked in his tenure for redevelopment of the nearby 12th Street corridor. The parks task force that studied War Memorial use talked of bridging I-630 with additional park development along Jonesboro Drive adjacent to the children’s library that Richardson championed. The lower-income neighborhood he represents seems more likely to use a free park than a $45-an-hour Topgolf bay with $12 draft beers.

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“I’m adamantly opposed,” Richardson said. “My fear was always that we were doing this [closing the golf course]  as a segue to commercial development.” As for a sports bar with driving range, Richardson said: “It’s preposterous. It doesn’t make any sense at all, especially for those of us concerned for using city land for ALL of our citizens.”