FORT SMITH -- Sebastian County may start the process of building pickleball facilities in the River Valley as it tries to figure out how to proceed with another planned park project.
The Quorum Court voted Nov. 15 to put a proposal to build pickleball courts at Ben Geren Park on the agenda for its Dec. 20 meeting. County Judge David Hudson wrote in his executive report the project would involve building six courts at a defunct go-kart track site at the park at a projected cost of $350,000.
Hudson also said the county got a $100,000 grant through the Arkansas Department of Transportation's Recreational Trails Program to help implement three trails totaling 3.39 miles at Bob Boyer Park in Midland. However, the county will have to scale back the work the project will entail in its grant proposal due to not receiving the more than $300,000 it originally requested.
The county will provide its share for the 80-20 matching grant, or $20,000, through in-kind work for the trail project, according to Hudson.
Jay Randolph, county park administrator and golf course superintendent, wrote in a memo to the Quorum Court the Sports & Fitness Industry Association's Topline Participation Report for 2022 announced pickleball as the fastest-growing sport in the country over the last two years. It reportedly grew by 39% in that time to include more than 4.8 million participants.
"The sport of pickleball is a mash-up of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong," Randolph wrote. "It's competitive yet highly social, provides a great workout and can be picked up quickly by most anyone, anywhere."
Randolph said Monday pickleball courts would also provide another opportunity for senior citizens to engage in physical activity at Ben Geren Park. The park's current offerings for seniors include golf, hiking and biking, as well as tennis for those in better physical condition. The go-kart track has been closed since 2019.
Randolph estimated discussions between the county and local residents concerning pickleball at Ben Geren Park began in the summer of 2019. He said he and members of the Quorum Court began getting phone calls about building pickleball courts there within the last two to three months.
Joe Scherrey, committee chairman for Western Arkansas Pickleball Advocates, a volunteer organization with about 185 members, said pickleball is growing rapidly in the River Valley. He said interest in the sport mainly started with people of retirement age, but families and younger people have since begun playing it.
Scherrey said pickleball is an easy game to learn and not as hard on players' bodies as other sports, such as tennis.
"A lot of people play it, older people, because they have the knee operations and they can't do quite as well," Scherrey said.
Randolph said an estimate from the Houston-headquartered contractor Trans Texas Tennis Ltd. puts the cost of building six pickleball courts at $303,744, which includes taxes. Randolph also requested money to provide LED lighting for the new courts and upgrades for a building at the go-kart track for a total of $313,000.
Randolph said in his memo he believes people should be able to use the pickleball courts for free if the proposal is funded, despite the fact that "most" parks with courts have started charging fees for play and the use of lights.
"The exceptions would be for league play, tournaments, reservations and use of lights, which would require a fee," Randolph wrote. "Most facilities charge $3-5 for reservations plus $5 for lights. In the future, an agreement with an association like the Western Arkansas Pickleball Association may be applicable."
Randolph said the county applied for $363,800 through the Recreational Trails Program for the Bob Boyer Park trails project earlier this year. The money would have covered the estimated construction cost of the project's first stage -- a main access trail, a secondary access trail and a foot trail -- which will allow people to access the park from a parking lot at its eastern end and travel to the western edge of the property.
Randolph said he and Hudson are trying to determine how to proceed with the project with the $100,000 grant the county received. He said the county will apply for another Recreational Trails Program grant next year to try to get the money to finish the first part of the project.
The cost estimate came from a plan for Bob Boyer Park prepared by Bentonville-based Progressive Trail Design, according to Randolph. The plan is intended to be implemented in three stages and includes designs for additional trails and other features such as pavilions, elevated boardwalks, mountain bike flyovers, another parking lot, hitching posts for horses and bike posts.
Randolph has said Bob Boyer Park, which is about 450 acres, has about 7 miles of trails, although they are "very, very rough and rugged."
Recreational Trails Program grants
The Arkansas Department of Transportation announced Nov. 4 that 12 projects in the state would receive more than $2.1 million in total grants through the Recreational Trails Program for 2022.
Source: Arkansas Department of Transportation website