The River Valley Sports Complex needs help, not ridicule, says Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Director Doug Reinert.
That was his message at the Tuesday, Jan. 11, meeting of the parks commission. Reinert admitted to being “frustrated” with the progress — or lack thereof — of RVSC organizers, but he worried the narrative was taking on too much of an “us versus them” mentality.
Fort Smith businessman Lee Webb — also chairperson of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission — and Arkansas State Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, are the project’s organizers. Reinert said when the two came forward with the RVSC proposal four years ago, “it was to help the city, and I want to do all that I can to help them (finish).”
Webb and Files’ plan for the River Valley Sports Complex originally consisted of eight “tournament-quality” softball fields to be built from a $1.6 million contribution from the city of Fort Smith as well as private donations and in-kind services. The first target completion date was 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.
Upon completion, the RVSC will become a city asset to be managed through an IRS-approved nonprofit entity set up by Webb and Files. To date, the pair have not obtained the 501(c)(3) distinction. This and the multiple missed deadlines combined to create a contentious study session for the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday, Jan. 10.
Webb’s report to the Board grew out of a December 2016 parks commission meeting when commissioners voted unanimously to have project organizers account to city directors for the lack of progress. On Wednesday, commissioners were once again asking the question, “What can we (the city) do to have some oversight moving forward?”
Commissioner Lacey Jennen suggested weekly meetings with the involved contractors. Reinert liked the idea, but acknowledged the city had little means to make that possible since the original agreement — voted on by the Board in 2014 — “had no failsafes” to ensure the project was done in a timely manner.
The only upside, Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman noted at the December meeting, is the city has only released around $1 million of the agreed-upon funds since it only pays when certain milestones are reached. As a result, the city is not out any money for unfinished work.
On a “normal project” like the two soccer fields and parking lot set to begin construction on 51 acres at Riverfront Drive, Reinert told parks commissioners, contractors would have to be bonded against delays. City directors agreed to waive that stipulation when agreeing to Webb and Files’ proposal three years ago, so it would prove challenging setting up any regular reporting directly with contractors, who are providing in-kind or privately funded services.
Even so, city directors discussed on Tuesday “exploring alternatives” should RVSC miss any more deadlines. Webb has agreed to submit a written report detailing what has been accomplished, what remains, and a projected completion date for the next milestone (i.e. fencing and irrigation on playing surfaces) by Jan. 31.