story by Ryan Saylor
Planning for the future of parks and recreation in the city of Van Buren is moving along with the expected approval in April of a contract with Bentonville-based CEI Engineering to create a parks master plan for the city.
According to Van Buren City Planner Joe Hurst, moving forward with the creation of the master plan is a response to community needs and input.
"I think it's really a response to the input from the public. We've had … it just seems to be growing involvement by the citizens to engage in recreation. I think that the culture is shifting that way from not only in the state of Arkansas but really everyone around the country. Cities are starting to understand the needs of providing parks and recreation opportunities for its citizens."
Even though CEI has yet to have its contract approved by the city council, the city has already invested in parks and recreation using $1.5 million in bond money from the city's 1% sales tax passed in 2012 to pay for improvements to the city's inventory of parks. Improvements include upgrades at the city's tennis courts adjacent to the high school, as well as installation of a disc golf course at the city park.
The city has also accepted a donation of 55.35 acres of park land in far northwest Van Buren that will eventually be turned into a wilderness park and has entered into a 25-year lease agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Lee Creek Park.
"We've listened to the public and this is something that they want the city to provide," Hurst said. "It's starting to become more of a priority in this city."
In developing the master plan, Hurst said the city and CEI will be listening to citizens, but also looking at what other cities have done in the region, including Bentonville, where CEI is based and developed a master plan.
In previous public meetings held to determine how to spend some of the $1.5 million in parks funding provided by the sales tax in combination with state parks and recreation grants, Hurst said a trail system was mentioned time and again.
"We know how successful that has been in Northwest Arkansas. CEI, our contractor, they worked on that and they have experience with connecting a trail system throughout that region. From our public hearings that we held when we got our grant, that's something that got mentioned time and time again — people wanting some sort of trail system. So we want to look into that. That's something that I see us at least investigating and seeing how we can connect it throughout the city."
While trails and other forms of recreation will be a major part of the parks master plan, Hurst acknowledged that paying for any proposed projects that could be included in the plan would be a large task.
"If we have anything extravagant, we'll have to get funding to do that. As we do this plan, we'll stress that the sky is the limit as far as ideas go, but there's always a question of money and how do we pay for that."
He said the city's previous combination of city funding combined with state grants was always an option. Hurst also alluded to the way Bentonville and other cities, including Fort Smith, have started to fund trail system and recreation improvements and expansion.
"They had millions of dollars donated (to their trail system). I think it was the Walton Family Foundation. And they supplemented that with city funds."
Regardless of whether the city is able to secure funding from a charitable or granting organization, the possibility of extending half of the city's 1% sales tax scheduled to expire in 2019 is another option for funding parks and recreation improvements in the future, according to Hurst.
But before any extension of the sales tax is explored, he said it was necessary to complete the projects underway, including a new police department, new fire department and a new senior center.
"We're dedicated right now to being good stewards of the tax money that was given," he said. "Once we prove that we were successful with those projects, it's always possible to go and try to fund a whole new project."
And it is something that was already on the radar of Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman when the sales tax passed in July 2012 when he told The City Wire that the tax would sunset “in seven years unless voters decide otherwise.”