by Max Brantley
The special city committee considering what to do with the old Ray Winder Field met this morning and, when it was over, came out of a closed session and recommended that the neighboring University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences get the property. In the short run, that would mean a parking lot on the former park land.
The committee rejected outright a proposal to use the stadium for youth baseball. It considered the Little Rock Zoo's plea for the land for a $10 million-plus expansion in its final deliberations. But former Mayor Jim Dailey, who headed the special committee, afterward sung UAMS' praises and said it had no other room to expand. He claimed it had no land on the east, though it owns most of a block-wide strip between Markham and the Freeway that is not nearly used up by med center facilities. Dailey said the Zoo could expand across the Mills Freeway to the south.
Dailey touted UAMS' benefit as an "economic engine." It is indeed -- welcome and valuable. But, really, must EVERYTHING in Arkansas always give way to this? Is nothing sacred, not even historic parkland? This argument, carried to its logical end, means not a square inch of War Memorial is safe from UAMS' manifest destiny. You can be sure they'll want more. Remember this, Stadium Commission, when they come for you.
The City Board is not bound to take the committee's recommendation and there is certain to be division on the City Board, but UAMS' clout in the community would have to make it the front-runner.
UPDATE: Intense business community lobbying has been underway on this issue. Mayor Stodola and Director Stacey Hurst talked with UAMS in the runup to its announced interest, my sources say. It would produce about $1.2 million for the city. Coincidentally, that's just enough to replace revenue lost when the cratering of the financial markets made a refinancing bond issue impossible. Opponents of the move believe the pressure on UAMS to buy the land was brought so that War Memorial Park improvements long promised by some city leaders could be accomplished. In short, to build the park, they have to tear it down. But not without a fight. And maybe not without a true RFP process so that others might bid.
UPDATE: Here's a link to the five committee members' score sheets. Unfortunately, each is currently identified as only R1-5. The identities of each will not be released, so we'll never know who low-rated baseball and high-rated UAMS. But it'll give you an idea of what was seen as a strength or weakness.
Bottom line: Money talks. Doesn't it always. UAMS was viewed as having the highest score on financial stability and also most "overall benefit" to the community. A parking lot. I think a Caterpillar plant would have scored high, too. What say we put the golf course up for sale on similar criteria. Money and jobs, what else is there to consider.
Back to what I wrote earlier:
The Zoo is my preference. It needs more space, it continues the land as a park use. More surface parking, at the expense of parkland, we don't need. UAMS talks of future construction needs, but it has other options. Youth baseball? I lived in a city where a minor league park was turned over to youth baseball for seasonal use. The poorly maintained derelict was not a pretty picture.
The five-person committee reviewing the proposals, after hearing the three presentations, began decision-making by deeming Ray Winder unfeasible for preservation for baseball. Baseball advocates disagree, but realistic hope of sufficient funding has always seemed a long shot.
The Zoo wanted the city land for free, since it is a city agency. UAMS has proposed to pay $2.75 million for the almost seven acres of city and state land now occupied by the baseball field and stadium, though the city only controls about 3.8 acres. It would immediately raze the old stadium.
The Med Center's presentation emphasized the future, not the parking lot, naturally. Either way, it removes parkland from a finite and small supply in the center city. If this is decided on money, I wonder what the land would bring if private developers were offered a chance to bid? That won't happen, but the five-member committee that met today will seek an independent appraisal.
The committee met in private, claiming they could do so since they were an unpaid, appointed agency. Baloney. They used staff support and city facilities, meaning their work was supported by public money. The deliberations should have been open. Baseball advocate Rex Nelson asked after the meeting for an explanation never heard in public of why, specifically, his proposal was found wanting. None was offered.
Former Mayor Dailey came prepared after the closed-door decision with a virtual speech on the wonders of UAMS. No other committee members spoke after the recommendation was announced and it wasn't known if the committee was unanimous on the recommendation.
Commented Rex Nelson:
I was baffled and disheartened by the entire process today.
I know when I have been run over by a train (and you can quote that if you wish).
Our bid was submitted Dec. 1. That means the city had two months to tell us they needed additional information, which we would have gladly provided.
Yet this committee meets in private for less than 10 minutes and tells us our bid is not acceptable. And there is no explanation why.
Nelson later got this response from deputy city attorney Melinda Raley:
The committee had a full discussion of the proposals after the three presentations were made. The Foundation received 2 of 5 votes in the affirmative and was deemed “unacceptable.” (It took 3 of 5 votes to advance to opening the price term envelope.) The four criteria listed are from the bid document.
I have attached copies of the Review committee scoring sheets. The committee members are designated by reviewer number R1-R5. The originals are in the bid file.