Pickleball group, church leader at odds over Chaffee Crossing land use

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,749 views 

Pickleball may be coming to Chaffee Crossing, but the move might mean one of the area’s long-term churches leaves.

The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority Board of Directors passed a motion at its regular meeting Thursday (May 16) to turn the Chaffee Crossing tennis courts into pickleball courts that would then be donated to the City of Fort Smith as a city park. The park area would consist of approximately 2 acres on Mahogany Avenue that would include courts and a stone archway and fence constructed in 1943 by 125th Armored Engineered Battalion.

According to the agreement, FCRA would resurface and improve the existing courts to make them suitable for pickleball and improve parking and fencing at a cost not to exceed $60,000. Once completed, FCRA would convey the property to Fort Smith to be a city-owned public park. Fort Smith would then reimburse FCRA the cost of the work.

Fort Smith has $64,000 set aside in the budget for “senior activities,” and pickleball courts would fall into such a category, Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman told the Fort Smith Board of Directors at a May 14 study session. The Fort Smith Board will take action on the agreement at the May 21 regular board meeting. If the board does not approve the agreement, the FCRA agreement to resurface and improve the courts will be null and void the FCRA board voted.

“We have been told by Fort Smith administration that the funds are there and there is a very good chance the agreement will be approved, but the administration cannot make the decision. It has to be approved by the board (of directors,)” said Don Keesee, FCRA director.

Pickleball is a paddle sport that combines elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis. Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit a perforated polymer ball, similar to a Wiffle Ball, over a net. Western Arkansas Pickleball Association, which brought the plan for the courts to both the FCRA and the City of Fort Smith, has about 75 members, ranging in age from 35 to 90 with a good number of their members being seniors, noted a memo from Debby Thomas, pickleball ambassador.

The group has played at private courts at Village Harbor for several years, but those courts will soon be used for tennis instruction formerly conducted at Fianna Hills Country Club, said Rob Ratley with WAPA. The group will not be able to use the courts at Village Harbor after May 31, making the need for alternate courts immediate, he said.

“This will be something the entire community can use and enjoy,” Ratley said.

However, some members of the Chaffee Crossing community were not as happy about the agreement. Christopher Reif, senior pastor at Calvary Frontlines church, proposed to buy the two acres that include the stone arch and courts along with the building that houses their church for $80,000 at the meeting. The church had been in discussions to buy the area with FCRA since January, Reif said.

The church has leased it’s building from FCRA for 15 years and has paid for improvements during that time as has the FCRA. The church originally offered FCRA $20,000 for the property. Following a committee meeting in early May, the FCRA Real Estate Review Committee suggested that FCRA agree to the pickleball association proposal and for the church to be able to buy its building for $20,000. Reif said the church withdrew the offer to buy only the building.

Following that committee meeting, which he said was their first opportunity the church had to discuss the issue with FCRA, Reif contacted the Calvary Chapel Association to secure funding that would allow them to offer the full asking price including the church, the arch and the tennis courts.

“The stone archway has historic significance and is very important to me and to our church. We want to turn it into a memorial courtyard and garden for veterans,” Reif said.

Reif said he and other congregation members would try to get support from the Fort Smith Board and members of the community to block the agreement with pickleball .

“They (WAPA) does not have the immediate need they say they do. They can use the Barling tennis courts. We have been discussing buying this land for months, to just now learn of the pickleball offer. We feel like this has all been done through the back door.”

In other business, the board agree to sell approximately 121 acres to the Arkansas College of Health Education, including approximately 69 acres recently released by Fort Smith Public Schools that was to be used for a new high school, for $2 million to be closed on as soon possible. Of that ERC Create has the right of first refusal on 46.9 acres at the price and terms offered by ACHE. ERC has five days for that action,

That property has several ideas attached to it, ACHE CEO Kyle Parker recently told Talk Business & Politics, with none yet definitive. One idea is to create a program “that will complement what school districts around the state are doing with STEAM (science, technology, education, arts, mathematics)” education, Parker said. It would be a “pipeline program,” Parker said, focused on encouraging junior and senior high school students to consider the medical field as an occupation.

The 71 acres could also be home to a performing arts center that would include a “significant” outdoor venue for concerts, theater productions and other purposes. The center and outdoor venue would be developed to “promote general wellness for people, which is part of our mission.” He said the facility would also be a quality-of-life recruitment tool for the region.

“National accreditation is pushing wellness and research of wellness,” Parker said following the meeting, noting that wellness promotion can take many forms, visual and performing arts, music and other areas.

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