Little Rock golf-venue proposal flops; city gets no bidders on idea for part of War Memorial Park

The deteriorated 18th green at what used to be War Memorial Golf Course. Little Rock has put out a request for proposals on a golf entertainment venue that would be built on 18 acres of what used to be War Memorial Park Golf Course. A golf entertainment chain, Topgolf is a high-tech driving range chain that Mayor Frank Scott Jr. has expressed interest in previously.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette – John Sykes JR.)

A request for proposals from the city seeking a golf entertainment venue to lease a portion of Little Rock’s War Memorial Park came up empty at Wednesday’s deadline.

No interested bidders submitted proposals to lease an 18-acre portion of park property near the South University Avenue and West Sixth Street.

The city received one response from Renaissance Roofing, which is part of a vendor pool that receives bid notifications. It responded “not interested,” city spokesman Lamor Williams said in an email.

It was not clear Wednesday whether the city would send out another request, or if conversations between officials and golf entertainment companies such as Topgolf were continuing. Williams directed questions about those decisions to the mayor’s office, which did not respond to inquiries from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette by deadline Wednesday evening.

In 2019, city officials met with the entertainment chain, which combines a sports bar atmosphere with a high-tech driving range, after Mayor Frank Scott Jr. publicly expressed interest in getting a venue in Little Rock. The company opened its first Arkansas location in Rogers this spring. A similar chain is Drive Shack.

News that the city could lease a portion of the park reignited a citywide conversation about War Memorial Park’s potential uses that kicked off last summer, when city budget cuts closed the park’s golf course.

Some officials and community members said locating such a venue in the park is at odds with recommendations from a mayoral task force looking into suggested new uses for the park. The recommendations were presented to the city board in January.

The group proposed preserving pockets of open space in the park while adding large and small ball fields, a bike park, pavilions and picnic areas, a dog park, a playground and an open-lawn stage.

City directors, who ultimately would have had to approve the lease of parkland with a resolution, had varying views on the matter.

Ward 4 City Director Capi Peck, a board liaison to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, said she did not feel that War Memorial Park would be an appropriate location for Topgolf. Ward 3 City Director Kathy Webb, whose district includes the park, said the same in a Facebook post last month.

Ward 6 City Director Doris Wright, the other board liaison to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, said she didn’t have a problem with a Topgolf location in the park and that it could be a compromise to satisfy people who were upset that War Memorial Golf Course had been closed.

In a series of tweets July 23, Scott noted the high amount of interest in the request for proposals and said some of America’s most well-known parks involve deals with private businesses.

Scott added that the city faces financial uncertainty as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. Because of the public health crisis, he announced in the spring that he would not pursue a campaign for a new 1% sales tax, revenue from which would have been used to fund park improvements.

“Given the financial outlook, the city needs to look at other options. As the city looks to the future of War Memorial Park, one potential which has been suggested is the location of a golf entertainment enterprise in a fraction of the park,” Scott wrote.

He said the request for proposals was merely an effort on behalf of the city to gauge feasibility and interest.

Some residents have shown up at Board of Directors meetings in recent weeks to oppose Topgolf or a similar enterprise in War Memorial Park.

“That is not part of the city’s master plan. It’s guidelines for our parks, the criteria for which our city code says that all planning should be based upon,” Dylan Ashcraft told the board at Tuesday’s meeting, citing provisions from a master plan for the Parks and Recreation Department that the board passed in 2001.

Ashcraft also said a petition calling for the cessation of all attempts to lease a portion of War Memorial Park to Topgolf or any other business, as well as for the city board to pass policies to “prevent all future attempts to commercialize and privatize Little Rock’s public parks,” had garnered about 630 signatures.

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