Little Rock now has a sound and comprehensive policy governing the sale of park land (unless the policy is repudiated by the city manager or Board of Directors, and that's unlikely). Even if the Board proceeds to sell part of War Memorial Park anyway, the new policy will make it harder to dispose of park land in the future, perhaps sparing other parks War Memorial's fate. Credit is due the city Parks and Recreation Commission, volunteers who worked diligently to create the policy and refer it to city officials.
The new policy requires that any proceeds from the sale of park land go to the Parks and Recreation Department, forbidding their expenditure for other purposes. It provides that no piece of park land can be sold without at least one public hearing before the Parks and Recreation Commission and a recommendation from the Commission to the Board on disposal or retention. It says that no park land can be sold unless the city makes specific findings that the property is not meeting its intended purpose, or that the city can recognize “significant alternative benefits” from sale of the property.
That “or” may be sufficient for the Board to grab the money that the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is offering. UAMS wants the park property for expansion — specifically, for a parking lot, it said originally; since that plan proved unpopular, UAMS has said the land is needed for anything but a parking lot. The Board of Directors was on the brink of making the sale without consultation with the Parks Commission, or public hearings, or any determination of what constitutes a legitimate reason to dispose of park land. Then public protest slowed the process, and the directors prudently decided not to act until the Parks Commission had recommended rules for all park sales.
With the policy in place, the Board can make a decision on the War Memorial deal, probably within a couple of weeks. Sale of the park property, the former home of the Arkansas Travelers baseball team, remains a bad idea. It will lead to other offers, and with precedent set, the second will be harder to resist than the first. As will the third, and the fourth. The continued existence of Little Rock's central-city park is likely at stake. Entrepreneurs have been saying for years that War Memorial Park has outlived its usefulness, that better (i.e., profitable) uses can be found for the land.
While the Board may choose to crawl through the “alternative benefits” loophole, the new policy provides ample grounds for retaining the park property if the directors are so inclined. The Parks Commission has served the people of Little Rock admirably. Will the Board be equally well intentioned?