Discussion of the River Valley Sports Complex became heated as Fort Smith city directors discuss selling the property during a Fort Smith City Directors study session Tuesday (Nov. 26).
“When it was clear the River Valley Sports Complex project was not going to be completed, we developed a two-step play for the property. The first step was to issue an RFP (Request for Proposals) to solicit interest to develop the property, and if the first step was not successful, the City would appraise the property and put it up for sale via competitive bidding in order to recoup some of the costs associated with RVSC,” City Administrator Carl Geffken said in memo to the board.
Former Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, and Fort Smith businessman Lee Webb partnered to build the RVSC in 2012, and in 2014 they convinced the city of Fort Smith to invest $1.6 million into the project. The project was to be a tournament-quality softball complex with eight softball fields, two concession stands and associated parking. It was to “economically benefit the entire region.”
Acting on the recommendation of Geffken, the Fort Smith Board of Directors nixed the sports complex plan effective Jan. 31, 2017, after more than two years of delays on the project. In 2017, several lawsuits were filed by the city and subcontractors over the unfinished RVSC, and the FBI investigated Files for possible wire fraud and money laundering related to use of about $27,000 in state General Improvement Fund grant money for the sports complex. The city spent $1.8 million on the project and incurred about $100,000 to $200,000 in legal fees associated with the project.
An RFP was posted in 2018, seeking a contractor or developer to step in and finish the sports complex or do something similar, but only one proposal was submitted, Geffken said.
“That proposal did not meet our needs, so we put the property up for sale,” Geffken said.
The city had the property appraised. The appraisal came back at $540,000 for the 62-acre parcel and $100,000 for a five-acre parcel. Legal notice for the offer for sale was published Oct. 22 with a Request for Bids posted on the city’s web site. The deadline for sealed bids is was Nov. 5. The city received one bid for the land by Steve Beam and Rod Blake for a little more than $210,000, Geffken told the board.
While informing the board of the offer, Geffken also told the board that the city had been approached with an offer for a private/public partnership that would replace some of the grass infields at the Kelley Park baseball fields (the Church League fields) with artificial turf in order to expand the field’s use and attract tourism.
Sam T. Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank, and Bobby Aldridge, principal engineer with Frontier Engineering, presented a plan to the board that would have private donors contributing $250,000 to match city funds of $250,000 that would allow for the artificial turf replacement on four fields at the park.
“(These fields) used to be a place for tournaments that would bring in new dollars and keep dollars here. We lost those tournaments to competition,” Sicard said, noting that those tournaments are going to Northwest Arkansas, which has over 30 turf fields, and Conway.
The economic impact of bringing the tournaments back to Fort Smith is conservatively estimated at $1,000 a team, Aldridge said. When tournaments were going strong at the ballfields, the larger tournaments drew about 100 teams, he added. The four fields to be renovated also are regulation size for softball, which would allow the park to be used for softball tournaments in the fall, he said. Money generated from the tournaments would go back into the fields and would allow for the remaining fields at the park to be renovated as well, Aldridge said.
Though all the directors present (Director Robyn Dawson was absent Tuesday) agreed the ballfield project would benefit the city and the citizens and should be funded, not all agreed the sale of the RVSC property was necessary to fund the Kelley Park renovations or that it was the step that need to be taken.
Geffken said the idea is to negotiate with the prospective buyers of the RVSC land to get the sell price to $250,000, which could then be used as the city’s match for the Kelly Park project.
“Selling the land at $330,000 below appraisal makes no sense to me. This is not a fire sale. We are not forced into it. … I think this (Kelley Park project) is an independent consideration from this transaction (the property sell),” said Director Lavon Morton.
He noted that the parks fund, which is funded by a 1/8-cent sales tax, would have $1.3 million in it at the end of 2021. Geffken argued that while those dollars were in the fund, they had already been assigned to other projects.
“But we don’t budget three years out. We set the budget for one year at a time. We can use that money for this project and then replace it,” Morton said.
The city could amend the 2019 budget to take $250,000 from the parks fund for Kelley Park. The sale of the RVSC property could be put on hold. Next year, it could be put up for sale again and at that time, it could bring in a higher sale price, which could be put back into the parks fund.
Director Kevin Settle said that only worked if the property had an interested buyer next year, noting the city might get an offer for less than the $210,000 offered now or not receive any offers. Settle and Director Keith Lau were in favor of getting the RVSC property off the city’s hands and to put the money garnered from the sale toward the Kelley Park project.
Director George Catsavis agreed with Morton that the price offer for the RVSC property was too low.
After much debate, the board agreed to put the topics of the sale and Kelley Park project on the agenda for Dec. 17 regular board meeting. In the meantime, they asked the city to put together an economic benefit study of selling the land now and later, per Lau’s request, and to get a second appraisal, per Morton’s request.
Aldridge said if the Kelley Park fields were to be used for tournaments in 2020, contracts would need to be put up for bid in the next few weeks and construction would need to begin by the first of the year.