Officials with the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County are now publicly committed to develop what we hope is a fiscally and physically responsible plan for the expansion and enhancing of facilities at the 1,200-acre Ben Geren Regional Park. The plan might also include improvements within Fort Smith.
This essay is written under the assumption that there is at least a minimal need for wiser use of Ben Geren through the cooperation between the aforementioned governments. If you are of the opinion that no investment of time, dollars and other resources is required with respect to regional recreational facilities, then what follows will likely piss you off, and instead of reading further you should go do whatever it is curmudgeons do to remain ever vigilant in the quashing of optimism.
The consensus among officials (hereafter to mean city and county officials) is that an opportunity exists for the region to improve recreational facilities for area residents AND to more successfully recruit state, regional and national sports tournaments. This effort will require governmental cooperation, rational economics, public involvement, coordinated management among legal authorities and huge amounts of ego-control.
We all have a part to play — from the resident who just moved to the city/county to the citizen who remembers the sights and sounds of Garrison Avenue when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Let’s now consider what our various roles might be in a process that could range from transformative to underwhelming.
• Officials should continue to be transparent, sincere and solicitous of public input in the process to develop a plan.
• It will be important for a plan to provide recreational opportunities to citizens, program support for area organizations (universities, schools, youth clubs, etc.) and marketable facilities to recruit regional and national sports tournaments.
• A plan (or plan options) must be based on a reasonable economic model that includes operations & maintenance support, future capital needs and innovative revenue-generation possibilities. The plan should include a world-class marketing plan that makes wise use of technology (to include social media) and maximizes/coordinates with other local, regional and state marketing/tourism efforts.
• The economic model for a plan or set of plans should include an administrative plan that allows for a clean accounting of revenue and expenses. Some suggest the creation of an authority to oversee a plan. Others might argue that an authority is a too aggressive approach toward public oversight. It’s an idea worth considering.
• To be sure, tax proceeds — from existing and new taxes — are the only way to fund most of the early ideas about expanding Ben Geren. Which is why it’s necessary we develop an honest, conservative and responsible economic plan. Also, we might consider placing a sunset on any new tax used to fund the plan. A sunset (similar to the 10-year provision on Fort Smith’s 1% street tax) keeps everyone on their toes and allows the public to have the ultimate say as to the wisdom of the plan pursued.
• When a plan is forwarded, officials MUST engage a clear and broad effort to educate the public. Proponents and opponents of an eventual plan will, in their zeal to respectively capture and kill public support, broadcast misinformation. Misinformation sucks. Misinformation must be minimized.
• We the folks must watch the process close, be patient, keep expectations high and resist assumptions that lead to conclusion jumping.
• This point on conclusion jumping is important. Because we need a public process, officials will publicly mention numerous plans and funding options as they work to narrow all options into a plan. Don’t be the fool who, latching on to one idea mentioned early in the process, builds an opinion for or against the plan that ultimately emerges.
• Don’t get sucked into the overzealous hype that a plan will be a game-changer in terms of improving quality of place. Sports tourism has proven a winner in regions larger and smaller than the Fort Smith metro area, but it won’t magically make this region completely attractive to the creative talent needed to diversify our regional economy.
• Don’t get sucked into the status quo belief that expansion of Ben Geren is a waste of taxpayer dollars and we can’t afford it during this recession. Business history finds many successful examples — including Arkansas Best Corp. and Baldor Electric Co. — of companies that invested in people and capacity improvements during recessions so they could capture market share when the economy recovers.
• Don’t get sucked into the belief that a prepared food tax (hamburger tax) will harm the restaurant industry. Many cities around the country with such taxes have both a vibrant restaurant sector and a successful sports tourism industry.
• Don’t get sucked into the belief that a prepared food tax is the only way to fund whatever plan emerges. The city of Fort Smith, for example, could divert — with voter approval — a percentage of tax proceeds from its 1% street tax program.
• Please know you won’t get a perfect plan. Don’t reject a plan because it has 10 tennis courts and you are convinced 14 are needed. On the other hand, don’t approve a plan that has all the facilities you desired but fails to adequately explain the source for upfront and ongoing funding.
We all have a part to play. As we ask city and county officials to play their part and be open and honest with the public, we the public have the most important part to play in that we must be open and honest with ourselves.