Photo of Steve Landers
PARKS: Mayoral candidate Steve Landers addresses some issues with Little Rock parks. Brian Chilson

Little Rock mayoral candidate Steve Landers took some hits recently for suggesting the city has too many parks. He reached out to clarify his position, saying that if elected, he would take a deep look at the Little Rock park system and work to enhance what already exists. Closing parks is not something he necessarily wants to do, he said, but poor conditions and the high price of repairs and maintenance could force some hard choices. 

On a hot Tuesday afternoon in July, Landers met with the Arkansas Times at a number of Little Rock parks to point out big and small problems that he said need to be addressed. While he didn’t have specifics nailed down on funding sources or which parks would get what, Landers talked of cleaning up sewage drainage in ditches, mowing, clearing land and adding pavilions and splash pads.

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Landers said he remained open to the possibility that fewer parks would better serve the community than the 63 the city operates today. He offered up the Interstate Park Sports Complex, built on the site of a former landfill, as an example of a park to close because he said the necessary maintenance and improvements would cost too much.

Photo of Steve Landers at Interstate Park Sports ComplexBrian Chilson
INTERSTATE PARK: Mayoral Candidate Steve Landers stands at Interstate Park where trash has filled the ditches and waterways.

For parks that make the cut, Landers suggested some ideas for improvements. He suggested a volleyball court for Thom Park, using an in-house city crew to level the land, fill with sand and put up the net to keep the cost low. He said he could use his business negotiation skills to bargain prices. Being more intentional on spending for the city’s parks is one of the ways Landers said he could run the city of Little Rock like a business.

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“I know that the city gets money,” Landers said. “I’m just a guy that would spend the money in the right places. I won’t waste money.”

Landers said that enhancing parks and bringing more funds and city help is important. Rather than putting a big pricetag on one park — he said he thinks the $1.5 million the city is spending on new basketball goals under Interstate 630 in Kanis Park is too much — he would spread available money between multiple parks to address smaller, but still important, problems. 

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“When you take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves,” Landers said, though he said he couldn’t talk of specific fixes without knowing what funding is there to cover costs.

Some parks, like Otter Creek Park, would benefit from enhancements rather than closing, Landers said. During his campaigning, Landers met José “Pepe” Vicente, a 74-year-old man who takes care of the Otter Creek soccer fields. Here, an estimated 2,000 people a week play on the fields.

Landers and Vicente joined forces to explain the critical state of the park, and blamed the city for most of the pitfalls. Vicente had a translator help in the interview process. Marco Lopez, a local youth boxing trainer, and Shea Maestas, an organizer of Latinos for Landers, were also present. They occasionally chimed in for clarification and helped explain the importance of the park to the Latino community.

Photo of Steve Landers gathering with members of the Latino communityBrian Chilson
OTTER CREEK FIELDS: A group gathered to explain the problems at the Otter Creek soccer fields. From left to right: Shea Maestas; Marco Lopez; Steve Landers; José “Pepe” Vicente, Tony D.

The Little Rock Parks and Recreation department is responsible for the electricity and irrigation at the Otter Creek soccer fields. It also manages the front portion of the park, but the city has a contract with the Arkansas United Soccer Club for lease of the fields. This agreement initially began in 2001 and was most recently reinstated in 2015, still years before current Director Leland Couch took office.

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The Arkansas United Soccer Club has an agreement with Vicente to maintain the fields, Arkansas United Soccer Executive Director Michelle Cox said. She said Vicente receives a “substantial” amount of money from players in the leagues year-round — a total she estimated at $300,000.

Fertilization, mowing and other field-related upkeep would fall on the shoulders of Vicente. Games are held on the fields every day except Fridays, when he mows, he said. There are issues with the sprinkler system that the city would be responsible for fixing, but the overall maintenance of the fields is Vicente’s responsibility under the agreement, Cox said.

Equipment, chemicals for the grass, fuel for the mower and other expenses all come out of Vicente’s pocket. Cox said Vicente is the “only entity using the park and generating funds off of that use of the park.”

Couch said he was not aware of the issues at Otter Creek, and fixing Vicente’s concerns is now a priority. He said one of his goals as director is to investigate park leases and see how detailed and current they are, while also exploring other avenues for upkeep.

The Little Rock Parks Department does augment Vicente’s work at Otter Creek Park with some of its own. Invoices obtained from the city parks department show at least seven work requests were completed at Otter Creek Park between Jan. 1, 2019, and Aug. 1, 2022.  

Photo of José "Pepe" VicenteBrian Chilson
STOLEN: José “Pepe” Vicente shows his equipment room. He has put vehicle boots on his machinery to stop thieves.

Still, the fields at Otter Creek Park are not a safe place, Vicente said. He said he has been taking care of the park for the last 14 years, and during that time people have broken in and stolen his equipment, vandalized the bathrooms and done donuts on the fields. He also speculated that there had been drug deals on the property. When trying to stop someone from driving on the fields a few years ago, the person pulled a gun on him, Vicente said.

Despite the problems and dangers that come with the park, Vicente said he takes care of Otter Creek for his people, because soccer is something that brings unity in the community.

Though Landers said he did not know the details of the contract between Vicente and the Arkansas United Soccer Club — or how much money Vicente earns — his point remains that the thousands of people who use the fields every week should have a better and safer area.

“My main goal is to service the kids and the families,” Landers said. “Whether it’s Pepe or it’s the city, have fields the kids can play ball on.”