by Max Brantley
We had a spirited office discussion yesterday about ideas to redevelop War Memorial Park. Some favor more green space. Some want to protect the tennis courts and golf course at all costs. Some simply distrust any big proposal by the city, sure there's a special interest lurking somewhere ready to capitalize on it and make money at the expense of park users.
It is a widely and deeply held cynicism about our city government. Do you wonder why?
Check the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this morning.
City Director Dean Kumpuris has been working secretly to hurry up a vote on sale of Gillam Park land to a company that happens to be owned by friends of his. The company wants to do more blasting for mining. Granite Mountain neighbors, among the city's most powerless, seem likely to be blasted yet again. Why not at least wait until the new city board takes office Jan. 1 for this vote? You know the likely answer to that question. The miners might not have the votes on the real board, as opposed to the current lame duck board.
Then there's the Airport Commission, where Commissioner Carl Johnson, in partnership with businessman Sherman Tate, wants to take off his official hat long enough to snare a "disadvantaged" minority contractor interest in the airport's concession contract. Republican insider Marcus Devine (hopefully to be out of work soon as the state's top environmental officer) also is another one revealed to be seeking the deal. This concession contract has always carried a smell ever since Bill Walker got it when powerful friends like Lottie Shackelford and Les Hollingsworth were in positions of influence at the airport.
UPDATE: I just talked with an aggrieved Bill Walker, who's justifiably unhappy. His own airport deal came under intense scrutiny, including FBI review. He gave up the minority contract to avoid a conflict with his race for mayor and now he sees a sitting airport commissioner dickering with one of the airport's major contractors. "It's not right and it's not fair," Walker said. We couldn't agree with him more. If Johnson fails to get the contract, no action he takes relative to the concession operator in the future can escape evaluation in that light.
Walker contends, too, that Johnson had been pressuring him to give up the contract . "He's been trying to push me out to make an opportunity for himself."
Walker is right, too, in urging the press to see that incoming Mayor Mark Stodola ends his law firm'srelationship as counsel for the Airport Commission sooner rather than later, whether Stodola himself is doing the work or not.
Why indeed would anybody think some special interests might be at work behind the scenes at War Memorial Park? It would be unheard of.
UPDATE II: Funny how things work. After I posted this this morning, I got quick calls from 1) a member of the study group and 2) City Director Stacy Hurst, who's pushing the War Memorial stadium effort. They assured me up and down that any concern about capture of park land for private use was paranoia. Hurst, I really think, envisions this as the Central Park of LR, money and time and effort all playing a role. OK. I had been the naysayer in our office conversation against the skeptics who said if there's any big deal cooking, a sleazy developer is in the background ready to cash in. I couldn't see it.
I related all this to a person of my acquaintance Thursday afternoon. It does not mean Stacy Hurst is anything but sincere in what she said, or what the study group member said is incorrect. But my friend said he'd talked directly in recent days to a prominent LR developer who was still eying a portion of War Memorial Golf Course for residential development and making an impassioned argument in the development's behalf. Silly me. Forewarned is forearmed. Eternal vigilance is the price of preserving War Memorial Park.