What to do with River Valley Sports Complex land continues to elude Fort Smith officials

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,251 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors voted down a resolution that would have sold the city-owned property that is former River Valley Sports Complex but passed a resolution to improve Kelley Park ballfields in hopes of bringing tournaments to the city.

At its regular meeting Tuesday (Dec. 17), directors voted four to three against a resolution that would sell 68.15 acres of property at Chaffee Crossing formerly designated for the controversial and defunct River Valley Sports Complex project for $210,273 to XFED Commercial Properties.

The proposed resolution had the proceeds from the sale of such property would have gone toward a project to install artificial turf playing surfaces at the city’s Kelley Park ballfields as part of a public-private partnership intended to improve the use of the Kelley Park ballfields for tournament play.

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 City Administrator Carl Geffken, the Fort Smith Board 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.

Geffken told the board at a Nov. 26 study session 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.

While all the directors agreed that the Kelley Park project is important for the city, directors Lavon Morton, George Catsavis, Neal Martin and Andre Good voted against the resolution to sell the property.

The topic of selling the property was discussed, sometimes heatedly, at the board’s Nov. 26 study session. At that time it was recognized that the $210,273 bid for the property was well below the $640,000 combined appraised value. At that meeting, board members requested a second appraisal. A second appraisal come back with a value of $852,000 for the entire property, a 60% increase from the first appraisal.

Director Robyn Dawson said she met with a real estate broker, two bank presidents, the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority and contractors involved in the proposed sale of the land and ones not involved with it. She noted that the comps the appraiser used were for properties not comparable to the city-owned property.

“Two of the three properties they used are on state highways. Immediately that makes property more valuable,” Dawson said.

More than 30 acres of the property is in the 100 and 500-year flood plain, Geffken said. Steve Beam and Rod Blake with XFED were planning to develop the property into a motor cross facility, Dawson said. She voted for the sale, saying that once the property was developed it would generate revenue for the city, but if the property sits unused, it never will. Directors Keith Lau and Kevin Settle also voted for the sale, saying it was time to put the whole RVSC fiasco in “the rearview mirror.”

The directors voting against the sale did so in order to see if a buyer can be found that would pay an amount for the property that is closer to the appraised value.

“This property is the most sought after area in the city,” Catsavis said.

Morton said he was conflicted because he was concerned the directors would wait so long to evaluate all the information only to realize the offer was a decent one but they waited so long it’s no longer on the table. He ultimately voted against the sale though.

Even though the sale was defeated, the board unanimously approved a resolution to amend the 2020 budget by appropriating $250,000 to the Parks and Recreation Department – contingent upon receipt of matching funds from other entities – to accommodate improvements to the Kelley Park Ballfields as presented at the Nov. 26 study session. Director Morton requested the resolution be put on the agenda.

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