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The Observer, July 12

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The Observer attended a public hearing last week on what sorts of things people would like to see in the city parks. The meeting was held during a driving rain punctuated by lightning at the Rosedale Optimist Club meeting room off Asher Avenue.

Despite the deluge, every seat was taken, mostly by some 40 residents of the neighborhood. The parks department is going to apply for a $500,000 outdoor recreation grant from the state (a federal pass-through that would require a $250,000 match from the city) and the parks staff, headed up by Truman Tolefree; City Director Doris Wright, and grant writer Steve Finnegan wanted a wish list run-down.

Run-down is right. Right off the bat, folks said they wanted the trash emptied, the grass cut and underbrush removed from several parks. They want the water fountains put back in. A road of some sort to a pavilion in West End park so older people and the handicapped could get their coolers (and themselves) there more easily. Grass where rocks are now. And how about bathrooms at Kiwanis Park?

Tolefree acknowledged that Little Rock’s parks are maintained at “C and B” levels, and said the department relies heavily on volunteers to keep them up. The city’s parks budget can’t cover city parks needs.

Then activist Jim Lynch asked parks to fight for its Fourche Creek Wilderness Park, which is being developed as a place to fish, canoe and get in touch with nature. He urged them to work with the neighborhood to stop the expansion plans by the garbage dump that sits in the middle of the bottoms.

None of these things can be achieved with an outdoor recreation grant, and the group was reminded of that.

So the folks started asking for things for their children: Playground equipment instead of the mud hole at the Optimist ballfield now run by the city. Batting cages. Resurfaced basketball courts at West End. Resurfaced tennis courts at Walker Tennis Center in War Memorial Park. An orienteering course. Small chip and putt golf greens. Safe bike routes to elementary schools. A pool at the Dunbar Community Center. Completion of the Stephens Recreation Center. A recreation center for the John Barrow neighborhood.

Bottom line: The people in the City in a Park want their parks to be places where kids can get outside and out of trouble. And that looks so hard to do.

Much has been made about redesigning War Memorial park as a more natural green space with meadows and walking trails and water features and places to picnic, throw Frisbees, fly a kite. Unfortunately, virtually every inch of the 202-acre park is now taken up by better-maintained-than-most recreational facilities: A playground, a golf course, the Little Rock Zoo, War Memorial Stadium, Walker Tennis Courts, the Jim Dailey Fitness Center and the now-empty Ray Winder baseball field. A committee looking at a redesign has suggested closing Fair Park, making the golf course smaller and ditching the tennis courts to provide the green space.

The Observer plays tennis (badly) and so will confess a bias against tearing them down. This patch of ground next to Markham Street is not an area of peace and quiet; Markham is a main artery for ambulances and fire trucks. It’s ill-suited to contemplation. We aren’t members of the Country Club and neither are the people who come from all over to play at Walker. It’s free. It has a backboard. It has a tennis program.

The Observer knows the folks over at Parks are dedicated. We know they want to think big and plan for the future. That’s why they hired the man who did the celebrated redesign of St. Louis’ Forest Park to suggest a War Memorial plan.

Forest Park is nearly 1,300 acres, bigger than Central Park in New York City. The redesign has been a naturalist’s dream, restoring to its natural state the meandering river that runs through the middle of it, creating an oasis in a busy city.

St. Louis, too, thought about closing one of the golf courses in the redesign. The African-American community said no way, Hoal listened, and the courses remain in the park.

Forest Park also has two tennis centers, an ice skating rink, a softball field, a history museum, an art museum, an outdoor opera theater. It even has a cricket field.

It’s got lots of things to get children outside and out of trouble.

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