River Valley Sports Complex project picks up steam toward 2015 open

story by Ryan Saylor

It was just earlier this year that the Fort Smith Board of Directors and the city were wrangling over risks and costs with the two men heading up the River Valley Sports Complex, with the project appearing to be up in the air at one point. But with the project moving forward, observers are likely to say what a difference a few months have made.

Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, along with Sebastian County Election Commission Lee Webb, have worked for the last two years to secure the nearly $4 million in funding and material donations to construct the RVSC at Chaffee Crossing, and while the city doubted engineering estimates of $40,323.50 provided by the men, which was well below the city's estimate of $420,000, the Board of Directors in March finally agreed to fund the project using money from the city's sales tax benefitting parks projects in return for the men deeding the property to the city upon its completion.

"I really feel like after that last set of meetings with the city, we came together and everyone was committed and wanted to see it completed,” Files said. “We set out and got an agreement from the city that allows them to see progress and release their portion of equity at different thresholds. That protects their interest and allows us to go about what we're doing and secure donations."

Since that time, Files said several conference calls and meeting have taken place with the U.S. Army Reserve regarding grading work.

"They've been here a couple of times and have walked the property and gotten their things in order," he said.

The property, donated by the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority and located at the corner of Roberts Boulevard and Taylor Road, is in the engineering phase with Brixey Engineering, he said, which was the original firm RVSC wanted to use instead of the city's more expensive choice of Mickle Wagner Coleman Engineers.

"We're about 80% done on our engineering plans so that when the (reserve) is here August 1, they'll be ready,” Files said.

The plans includes the grading and design of the eight ball fields, as well as the parking lot and concession stands and restrooms to be located on site, as well.

At the time of the disagreement with the city over engineering, City Administrator Ray Gosack had said Brixey and the architect Chase Garrett did not meet the state's requirement of "most qualified," which is why the city wanted to go with Mickle Wagner Coleman.

"His firm (Garrett) typically does high end hotels and to say someone's not qualified to do a concession stand with some restrooms and some storage area that does hotels on a daily basis is just flat false," Files said at the Jan. 14 study session of the Board of Directors.

Now approaching five months from that contentious study session, Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup said without the grading plan being developed by Brixey, it would be impossible for the military to do their site work, which will be conducted in two different two-week installments, with a completion expected by August 28.

In addition to the engineering work, Alsup said Files and Webb would be putting in some preparatory work before the military's arrival on-site.

"Between now and then, this is also part of what Jake and Lee will be doing, they will be clearing the site of trees. The Army Reserve…they need the trees removed. They don't need practice knocking trees down. So they'll have the trees removed and they'll have the grading plan to the reserve. That's really the main thing that has to be done by August."

Files added that with visible work starting to take place at the site due to tree removal and the planned involvement of the military, which is using the grading work as an exercise for the reservists from multiple states who will be working on the project, area residents will finally start to see work taking place on a project that has long been a dream of both Files and Webb.

The next phase in the project, which he said is already underway, is making sure donations of building materials and labor come through as promised.

"I'd say we've made contact with most of the folks who have been committed for a long time (to the project)," he said. "We're in the process of rounding things up and solidifying (commitments). Over 90% of the commitments we had made in the beginning are still there. We're just now getting to where we can see the architectural drawings and we just the amount of fencing and concrete (will be needed), those things that are not just pretty good estimates, but engineered drawings where we can say, 'We need X-amount of base for the parking lot. Can you help us out?' I think we're right were we thought we would be in terms of the economics of the project."

In order to keep the project going, though, Files and Webb will need to come back to the Board with updates, which they plan to do again within "the next few months," Files said.

In the meantime, Files said he and Webb have been working hard to get the project moving along for an opening next year.

"Our target is still opening in Spring 2015 and we don't see any reason why that's not achievable."

And as the opening date moves closer, there are already talks underway for the first tournament to take place at the 8-field tournament facility, he said.

"There've been some national baseball and softball contacts we've made who've contacted us about getting this thing up and going with tournaments and high-level activity to the complex. It's exciting to us and it's the economic development that we've stressed all along that would be a benefit to our region."