The Fort Smith Board of Directors drew a line in the sand for organizers of the River Valley Sports Complex at Tuesday’s (Jan. 10) study session.
Fort Smith businessman Lee Webb — also chairman of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission — and Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, have overseen the project using mostly in-kind services, private donations, and a director-approved $1.6 million contribution from the city. Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said the project had to reach “certain milestones” in order to receive a draw of funding, “and thus far, we’re at about $1 million.”
Webb acknowledged previous missed deadlines as a frustration, but also observed the draw schedule had not caused the city to be out any funds in excess of the agreed-upon milestones. When asked by City Director George Catsavis to provide a hard deadline, Webb said he could give an “arbitrary” date, but he did not want to continue the cycle of projecting completion dates that could not be met.
For Catsavis, that was unacceptable. “We need to know when this is going to be finished, Lee, or it’s time to pull the plug,” he said. City Director Mike Lorenz said he did believe it was time for the city to get clear cut deadlines or begin exploring outside options.
“I feel like we’ve been getting the same information for nearly a year now,” Lorenz said. “We’ve had assurances before, and I feel like there’s not an overall game plan that says, ‘Here’s our finish date, and here’s how we’re going to get there.’ We have to see a plan of how you’re going to get there. It’s easy to say we’ll be playing on it by summer, but we’ve got to know how.”
Lorenz said it was “really discouraging and concerning that the money we’ve invested already is really at risk at this point.” He continued: “We realize the timeline of when we started, but to the general public, this is something that’s been going on four years with no end in sight. What have we got with the money we’ve spent? Do we have the ability on our side to show we’ve got what we paid for and that what we’ve spent is accurate?”
Dingman suggested a Jan. 31 deadline — and the Board and Webb agreed to it — for a written report detailing the work done so far, the work that remains, and a date for completing the next milestone, which includes fencing and irrigation for the playing surfaces.
Webb and Files entered into an agreement with the city in 2014 with a target completion date of June 10, 2015. Substantial completion after the second extension pushed the next date to July 22, 2016 with an opening day of July 31. After missing that deadline, other dates followed — one in mid-October 2016 and one in mid-December.
Webb informed the Board that he still believed the fields could be ready by the fall of 2017, but city directors were less certain.
“I really don’t think we can place sod down and be ready to play by then,” said Director André Good, noting that the grass would need time to settle. “But what are our options really?”
Catsavis proposed allowing the Parks Department to take over the project, but Dingman observed there is no money budgeted for ongoing operations of the facility.
The Board of Directors will hold its next regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17, from the Fort Smith Schools Service Center.