The Fort Smith Board of Directors approved a resolution at its regular meeting Tuesday (May 21) that will bring pickleball courts to Fort Smith Public Parks. The resolution authorizes a memorandum of understanding with the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority that will result in city-owned and operated public pickleball courts in Chaffee Crossing.
The FCRA owns two derelict tennis courts with an adjacent parking area on the former Fort Chaffee property in the vicinity of the 7200 block of Mahogany Avenue. The FCRA Board of Directors passed a motion at its regular meeting Thursday (May 16) to turn those 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.
There was much discussion prior to Tuesday’s vote to approve the resolution with parties both for and against the project addressing the board. Christopher Reif, senior pastor at Calvary Frontlines church, had proposed to buy the two acres that include the stone arch and courts along with the building that houses their church for $80,000 from FCRA, an offer the FCRA board did not consider at its meeting Thursday. The church has leased it’s building from FCRA for 15 years and has paid for improvements during that time as has the FCRA. At Tuesday’s meeting, Reif said the church wanted to use the arch and wall and land accompanying it for a veterans memorial garden as part of church property.
“I understand we need a place for our veterans. Sometimes, they don’t want to come into a church. But they will come to a courtyard, and they will talk to a fellow veteran. As a pastor, I hope they come to a church, but as a veteran, I hope if they don’t they will come to the courtyard and not end up committing suicide,” Reif said.
Reif asked the board to not approve the resolution, saying that doing so would push them out of their place of worship.
“We are rebuilding this church,” Reif said, noting the church now has 45 members and having the public park take up so much room would not allow the church to grow.
“I feel like we are getting pushed out, both the veteran community and church,” Reif said.
Reif told Talk Business & Politics following the FCRA meeting Thursday that if the Fort Smith BOD approved the project, the church would look for another location.
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. Four pickleball courts can fit on one tennis so court, so the two courts at Chaffee Crossing will convert into eight pickleball courts.
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. The courts and accompanying acreage do not have bathroom facilities, and Dingman said there are no plans to put any in the public park.
“This will be public park when all said and done,” Director Kevin Settle (at large, position 6) said. “To me that means that anyone in the public can go use it, including the wall, and I think the wall should be part of the public park so anyone can use it at any time. I want it to be a public place where anyone can go out and take photographs or prom pictures or wedding pictures or weddings or whatever they want to use it for in the future.”
Four members of the board voted to approve the resolution. Director Neal Martin (at large, position 7) voted against the resolution.
“This church was out there when no one else was out there. I think we have to respect their growth plans, and what it obviously means to this group. There is a strong tie to the church and this arch,” Martin said.
Director George Catsavis (Ward 4) abstained from the vote, saying he thought FCRA, the church and the pickleball association should discuss the project more before the board acted on it. Director Lavon Morton (Ward 3) was absent from the meeting.