story by Ryan Saylor
An attempt by the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA) to reclaim an amphitheater it originally gave to the city of Fort Smith ran into a hiccup Wednesday (April 23), as the Fort Smith Parks Commission voted against recommendation of the land swap to the city's Board of Directors.
When the FCRA originally deeded the land back to the city in September 2011, an agreement was made that gave the city ownership of the site but requiring the redevelopment authority to maintain the site and facilities on the grounds. The agreement also called for construction of a restroom facility to be paid for by the FCRA.
In a letter to the city requesting that the amphitheater be given back to the FCRA, Owen said the organization he leads had spent $26,000 "cleaning, landscaping and beautifying" the site since it re-opened in November, following the completion of the McClure Road project.
Speaking before the Parks Commission on Wednesday, Owen said the eventual investment of $35,000 to install restroom facilities at the site — which he acknowledged was part of the 2011 agreement — had the FCRA Board of Directors wanting the site back within their control due to the large capital investment.
"We did spend some money and we intend to spend some more money on it because it's a great amenity for us to have," he said. "Our Board would rather have title to it if we're going to spend any money on it."
He added that there has been confusion among the public on reserving the site, with many people assuming the FCRA still owns and operates the facility, even though it is operated by the city. Part of the operations include renting the facility out to parties and events, which Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup said costs groups about $100 each in order to cover utility costs. Owen said if the FCRA had control of the site again, the organization would not charge groups to use the site and would cover all utility costs, as well.
To further explain the attempted reclamation of the land, Owen said the site was an important part of the marketing plan for FCRA and would make it easier for the organization if it had control of the site and its amenities instead of the current set up, which has FCRA fronting the costs for the city's parks facility.
In his recommendation to the commission that they vote down Owen's request, Alsup said that at some point in the future the FCRA would cease to exist as it sells all off its properties and accomplishes its stated mission of fully redeveloping the land that was given up by the U.S. Army following the closure of that section of Fort Chaffee.
"If it is turned back over to the FCRA, I think it should be with stipulations (that)… all of that should remain park property and at some point when any of that property is … it can't be sold to anybody or given to anybody. It would have to be given back to the city."
Owen said he would be fine with the stipulations and in fact has no intent to sell the land as the former military base continues developing.
"I do agree with Mike that the city would have first right of refusal to take it back, but I don't have any intention of giving it to anybody. We're certainly not going to sell it. We spent $140,000 renovating it, so it's going to be an asset to the city no matter what. I just want to have control of it, I want to build the restrooms. I'm not going to give it to anybody else. Not going to do that. I want it to be our amenity because of what we do out there (with) marketing."
Parks Commissioner Chris Millspaugh said it was worth letting the FCRA take control of the site again, especially considering the city's tight financial situation.
"I mean, we're pretty broke and I think we should try to save money where we can. And I think Fort Chaffee has done a good job developing that area and making the right moves to attract business and the people who live at there."
Sherry Toliver, who also serves on the commission, took a different stand and made the point that the contract in place already stipulates that the FCRA will maintain the site and construct the restroom facilities.
Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman told the group before the motion failed that a municipality giving up park land was nearly unheard of.
"It's certainly against the nature to release it back into the wild, so to speak, understanding that the proposed use is to keep it as such. But when you have the city park land, it's unusual for a city to give up park land just to convey it back to somebody."
The motion received three votes for Owen's proposal and three votes against. Parks Commission Chair Lorie Robertson abstained since she serves as marketing director at the FCRA.
Owen said after the vote that he would still bring his proposal to the Board of Directors even after the failed vote of the parks commission and if he does not get the land back under FCRA ownership, he would seek changes to the contract.