The Observer is a Little Rock Long-Hauler who has been around this city many a moon. So allow us to tell you what’s going to happen with this Topgolf bullshit Mayor Frank Scott Jr. is exploring for 18 acres of the former War Memorial Golf Course. No crystal ball required. Just a long-term knowledge of this city and what it will abide. Ready? Here goes:
TOPGOLF! A glitzy, neon-lit monstrosity where overwhelmingly white, golf-loving bro-dudes can hang out and drink beer and talk about their golf clubs and their new F-150s and laugh at the poors. But the wings are only so-so, and the burgers are $10 bucks to start, and once you’ve done The Topgolf Experience, you’ve kinda done it. Seriously, now: Can you imagine someone who doesn’t work at Topgolf going there to eat and drink once a week, or even once a month, for years?
So, after doing great business for two years, so-so business for a few years, and absolutely abysmal business for a few more, Topgolf — having built in this town in an economy that is as unpredictable as mahjongg — will decide it can’t keep pumping money into a burg like Little Rock and they will pull up stakes. Could be five years. Could be 10. But it will happen. And at that point, Little Rock has got a giant, 18-acre, wings-and-burgers-smelling eyesore — with attendant parking lots, loading docks, streetlights, curbs and everything else it takes to make a place like that go — smack in the middle of what could have been Little Rock’s Central Park if we had just a little bit more vision and just a little bit less short-term greed. Drive out to I-30/I-430 and look at Bass Pro, with black asphalt parking lots and landscaping for days. Imagine that, abandoned, dropped down like a vast refrigerator box, in the middle of what could have been our city’s showplace park. And once it is developed, it will never be undeveloped again. Development is, in so many ways, forever.
That is absolutely what will happen if Topgolf is allowed to grease its way into War Memorial Park. The Observer has seen it a dozen times in this city. Stuff like that doesn’t work in Little Rock longterm, because we are a fickle people and we are an overwhelmingly poor people. Ask Playtime Pizza how business is going selling bad pizza around a Go Kart track in their for-lease shell of a building. Go downtown and stroll through the Metrocentre Mall. Ask our city’s many former cupcake and flavored-popcorn tycoons how it goes. Little Rock: the city that seems big enough to sustain the things Memphis and Dallas have, but which is actually so small it can’t. The Observer has been saying that for years. Might sound cynical, but leave the dreams to the dreamers. This kid is a realist.
You know what works here? Not golf-specific ripoffs of Dave and Busters. Not grilled-cheese-only restaurants or axe-throwing places. What works here are spaces for people to enjoy the outdoors (and we’re not talking about XTREME! Golf and overpriced burgers). What works here is the way Little Rock’s urban areas mesh seamlessly with the natural world. Go down to the Big Dam Bridge on a Friday night in the summer when the world isn’t falling apart and see the throngs of people gathered there, the true, diverse face of our city. Go out to Pinnacle Mountain on a warm Saturday in the spring. THAT’s what works here. That’s what people here want. And even better, that kind of thing is the sort of amenity that brings young, interesting, educated, outdoorsy people to our city, so it can grow and eventually be able to support Topgolfs and grilled-cheese-only restaurants and axe-throwing places. But if you rush that, you just wind up with a big, embarrassing failure in the middle of what could have been your crown jewel of a park. What you get, for all that investment of our community’s treasure and land, is another lost opportunity for Little Rock to have a public space that can be a place of healing and togetherness for this city, a place where no one claims ownership because everyone knows it is owned by us all, like the Big Dam Bridge. What you get is just another paved wasteland to see from the window of a car speeding along the crosstown freeway that was literally built to divide us one from another.
Right now, for one time only, Little Rock has the opportunity to turn what is pretty much the largest piece of contiguous public land left in Little Rock — common ground, at the heart of our city — into a space that will attract the people we need to make our city into the kind of place we want it to be, and that will keep attracting them for the next 75 years. No matter how crazy you are about the idea of Topgolf Little Rock, do you really think Topgolf will keep contributing to the growth of our city, and our communities, and the health of our people, for 75 years?
Given that, how about instead of pissing this chance away on some neon-lit eyesore that’s gonna be home to a nail salon before the kids in second grade now are out of high school, we instead build a green foundation for tomorrow? How about we Save War Memorial Park for future generations of Little Rock residents? Is that too much to ask? That just once, this city tells the wealthy no and our children yes?