Appearances matter much in politics. So, it's fair and relevant to say there is an appearance that the fix may have been in with Mayor Frank Scott angling to get the War Memorial Golf Course closed so that choice midtown greenery could get partially ceded to private development.
You could establish a perfectly logical linear narrative by which the mayor acted from the start to permit Topgolf--a popular private-enterprise golfing entertainment venue offering virtual and actual indoor and outdoor golfing experiences along with food and drink--to lease land along the southwest corner of the course.
A certain 18-acre piece of the 90-acre golf course and 220-acre park, pressed against Interstate 630 on the south and near University Avenue on the west, would easily qualify as the ideal sports-bar property in the city.
Soon after taking office, the mayor touted his desire to get Dallas-based Topgolf located in Little Rock. He said it would fit with his desire to make Little Rock a millennialist-friendly modern Southern city. Then, faced with severe essential budget cuts, the mayor chose last April, and executed by July 4, the closing of the War Memorial Golf Course.
He appointed an advisory group to propose new public-park activities there. Then, on the recent July 1, his office unilaterally put out an RFP, a request for proposals, for "golf-entertainment" enterprises to submit plans by July 22 for locating, via a lease arrangement with the city, on that 18-acre piece.
There are other Topgolf-type companies, and Scott says one of those--New York-based Drive Shack -- has shown interest along with Topgolf. Topgolf is in business in Rogers, on private property, as is the custom for private enterprises.
The advisory group had considered no private-development options and knew nothing of the mayor's action.
A popular blog called Rock City Eats broke the story of the RFP on Friday, and Twitter exploded with outrage--and some support--over the weekend.
City Director Capi Peck, a parks liaison on the board, said she didn't know anything about it. She declared her opposition to the very notion of privatizing any section of city-park real estate and asked on Facebook for public comments, getting scores of agreeing ones.
Scott, beholding all of that, called late Saturday to tell me this simply was an effort "to see what's out there" in terms of interest in, and plans for, such an enterprise. He said he could never get such a project done without City Board of Directors approval. He said the process he'd initiated--should it receive firm proposals--would merely start a publicly deliberative process.
There is concern that surrounding public-park acreage could be leased to ancillary enterprises lured by the golf entertainment venue, but Scott said that wouldn't happen.
He said that, even if this proposal should reach fruition, there would be 202 acres left--or 72, if you count only the golf course and assume the stadium and parking lot won't be razed--for a regional sports complex, an outdoor entertainment venue, walking trails and other mixed-use recreational activities.
Did Scott have Topgolf private development in mind when he moved to close the golf course?
"No," he said emphatically.
Did he know of the private-enterprise interest in such use of that land at the time he closed the golf course?
He first said, "no," and then corrected. Yes, he knew of interest by Topgolf and one competitor. He said one or both had looked at sites near the southwest-sector outlets and on Colonel Glenn Road, among others. And, yes, he knew of a prevailing affinity for the 630 and University area.
But, the mayor stressed, he in no way closed the golf course because this particular project was lined up a year ago. He said the budget cuts were essential and the golf course was a logical closure to save money.
There is an argument that 18 acres of a 220-acre park could be spared to a popular private establishment paying rent that would generate money for the city not being received now. Tavern on the Green was built on a leased corner carve-out in Central Park. I get that Topgolf may be a bit less aesthetically compatible with a park than Tavern on the Green.
As one social media commenter put it, the proposal would give midtown residents a destination closer than "East Bryant," meaning the Bass Pro Shop/outlet mall area.
Seventy-two remaining acres of park fun would be less than 90, but 72 more than we have now.
But it's the principle of the thing, people seem to be saying. Public urban green space should be preserved intact for general use every time, never prostituted for commercial gain, they say.
Clearly, this process was flawed and remains suspicious. A strong executive is one thing. A haughty one is something else. The concept is highly debatable, emotionally so.
Let's see if the mayor gets any bites July 22, then let's really have it out.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.