War Memorial Stadium proposal receives backing

Panel in House favors park link

Posted: February 16, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

A runner does laps around the field Wednesday afternoon at war Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Gov. Asa Hutchinson is proposing cutting state general funding almost in half for War Memorial Stadium operations in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2018.

An Arkansas House committee on Wednesday endorsed legislation that would merge the free-standing War Memorial Stadium Commission into the state Department of Parks and Tourism, after the department's director said he expects more high school football and soccer games to be played at the stadium.

In a voice vote with no audible dissenters, the House Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee advanced Senate Bill 255 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, after one lawmaker questioned whether the stadium could become a Southern regional soccer stadium and another questioned whether taxpayers should continue to fund the stadium.

In October, Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed moving the independent commission to the Parks and Tourism Department. The Republican governor also proposed cutting general-revenue funding for the stadium from $895,171 in fiscal 2018, which starts July 1, to $447,647 in fiscal 2019, which starts July 1, 2018. The stadium was allocated $889,085 in general revenue in fiscal 2017.

Hutchinson has pledged to use his discretionary funds for a feasibility study by a nationally recognized stadium consultant to make recommendations on needs and opportunities for the structure, which opened in 1948 in Little Rock. Two companies have submitted proposals for the study.

Rep. Jack Fortner, R-Yellville, said there is no premier soccer stadium in the South.

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"I like football, but soccer is the thing. Would it take a great deal of money or do you even know how to make that into a regulation soccer field? That is a beautiful place that I could see championship games. I could see teams coming there to play," he said.

Kane Webb, director of parks and tourism, said he agreed with Fortner.

"I can see a future of the stadium where you've got more high school football games. You still got college football games and you have a lot of soccer games," he said.

"It seems like for the last 20 years we've heard soccer is the next best thing. Well, it's finally happening," Webb said. "I think we would be missing the boat if we weren't going after that market with War Memorial Stadium."

Irvin noted that she's been active in youth soccer and had more than 30 parents and their children drive two hours from Mountain View to Little Rock to watch the Little Rock Rangers soccer team at the stadium.

"We have that ability to really expand that market and bring so many people into the state and especially to the central Little Rock. You can look at Chattanooga, Kansas City ... [and] a lot of similar markets as Little Rock and see ... the growth that's happened because of their embracing soccer," she said.

Regarding SB255, Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, said, "In essence, what we are doing here is burying this deeper within a state bureaucracy in order to have different pots of taxpayer money to pay for a stadium that is aging ... and is about to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

"The eventuality in 20 years or 30 years at some point we'll get to the place where it will have to be replaced and the cost for replacement of a stadium is $30, $40, $50 [or] $60 million, and that's another cost that I am afraid that is going to be borne on the taxpayers of the state," he said.

"I would love to see the state divest itself of the stadium, whether it goes to the city of Little Rock or whoever. Make it a tourist hot spot for the state. That would be awesome," Meeks said. "I still question how this benefits the taxpayers of the state to begin with and why does somebody over in Fort Smith have to pay taxes to support a stadium in Little Rock that they may have never seen."

In response, Webb said, "Maybe that Fort Smith person has seen a Razorback game there or seen the Fort Smith Southside Rebels or the Fort Smith Northside [Grizzlies] play a championship game there.

"A lot of people all across state have seen events at War Memorial Stadium, and I would hope they would continue to do so. I don't think it's known that the stadium had more than 250 events there last year. It is well-used," he said. "With our marketing ability with [the Department of] Parks and Tourism, we can get the word out more about what is available there and look at ways to better utilize the stadium."

Webb said the planned feasibility study for the stadium "is going to be a really good way to see what we can do with the stadium moving forward."

"It is in an incredible, centrally located, perfect spot, which is unusual for any stadium, and I think it has a bright future," Webb said.

Meeks questioned whether the stadium eventually will become self-sustaining.

"That is our goal and that is our charge from the governor," Webb said.

But Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said it's important to recall that "a lot about what the University of Arkansas is, the reputation of the school [and] who the Razorbacks are, was developed by games at Little Rock."

"It is very easy to say, 'Well, War Memorial, we can cast it aside,'" he said.

"But ... wouldn't you agree that the state and the university should be thankful for what that stadium has meant to the university in developing [a Southeastern Conference]-caliber program and in reaching and attracting students from other parts of the state to the hill?"

Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, who is the House sponsor of SB255, said he wholeheartedly agreed with Shepherd.

SB255 would give the Department of Parks and Tourism "exclusive jurisdiction for the operation of the stadium ... known as 'War Memorial Stadium,' which shall be for the use of all the schools, colleges and universities of the state under the supervision of the department."

The members of the eight-member War Memorial Stadium Commission would continue to be appointed by the governor under the legislation, but its actions would be subject to the approval of the parks and tourism director.

The commission would be stripped of its financing authority under the bill. Irvin said the commission would instead go through the Arkansas Development Finance Authority for financing. If approved by the House and sent to the governor, the bill would become effective when he signs it.

Metro on 02/16/2017