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Municipal Goals: Arkansas Cities Invest in Youth & Amateur Sports Facilities

6 min read

Several Arkansas cities are on deck to build municipal sports complexes for youth and amateur play, a pitch for tourism and economic development as well as recreation.

And in a trend within a trend, Jonesboro and Little Rock plan to contract with companies to operate sports facilities. The idea is to maximize revenue from tournaments and daily user fees, and to capitalize on growing sports tourism.

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. outlined plans for indoor and outdoor sports complexes in different parts of the city as cornerstones of a proposed sales tax increase.

Jonesboro, Searcy and Conway are funding big sports complex plans with bonds, and Benton announced plans last spring to spend $7.6 million — the city’s largest single land acquisition — to build Benton Thomas Park, a future home for a swimming pool, ball fields and an indoor soccer and sports complex.

Cabot dedicated its 128,000-SF, $16.5 million Game Time at The Grounds early this month, and hosted a volleyball league there — at 300 Champions Drive — on May 6.

“A lot of cities are doing this, but, yeah, we’re the first,” said Travis Young, Cabot’s director of parks and recreation. “We want to be the leader in the industry. We’re very excited about it. It was years in the making.”

For now, Cabot’s is the biggest and boldest new complex.

“There’s 60,000 square feet of court space, which includes six regulation basketball courts,” Young said. Those turn into 12 volleyball courts, and all basketball and volleyball systems are mounted from the ceiling to speed and simplify transition.

The building’s central hub includes a cafe and lounge. “Then on the east side of the building, there’s about 50,000 square feet of turf field space,” he said.

Schlosser Steel Buildings Inc. of Hatfield, Pennsylvania, designed Game Time. Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway was the general contractor and “the building itself came from Pinnacle Structures right here in Cabot,” Young said.

Cabot, with a population of 27,000, plans to use Game Time as an economic generator with tournaments on the weekends, Young said. “Then we’ll have it a couple of days a week to run city recreation programs through here. And then we’ll set it up the rest of the week to let people rent space or just come in on a [paid] day pass to use the facility.”

Young said Cabot is working on revenue projections for the complex, but they haven’t been finalized.

Conway broke ground in September on a 133,000-SF community center and expects it to open next year with indoor and outdoor swimming pools and indoor pickleball, racquetball and badminton courts.

A special election approved a bond issue to finance the $35 million project in February 2022. Crafton Tull of Rogers and Nabholz are leading the project.

National Trend

The Cabot Parks & Recreation Department will operate Game Time, but Jonesboro and Little Rock are looking for companies with expertise in a youth and amateur sports tourism industry that grew by 11% to $52.2 billion nationwide in 2023, according to the Sports Events & Travel Association.

One group that Little Rock has consulted with, the Sports Facilities Cos. of Clearwater, Florida, coordinates with municipal leaders and real estate developers on projects to create retail, dining and hotel attractions around sports complexes.

The company announced this month that its portfolio produces more than $500 million a year in direct economic impact from 25 million annual visitors. And 60% of its projects now in the works have mixed-use real estate components.

Jason Clement, CEO of the company, described some of the projects.

“In the best instances, municipalities participate in the planning of the youth sports assets and maintain control of the operation, often through specialty third-party operators like SFC, while the developer focuses on leasing … outparcels and creating a family-friendly walkable destination,” Clement said.

Little Rock

A walkable hub fits nicely into the forthcoming Downtown Little Rock Master Plan. The city is proposing a $60 million multipurpose indoor sports complex near the Clinton Presidential Library, though it hasn’t finalized a location. A $60 million outdoor sports complex is proposed in west Little Rock, if the sales tax increase succeeds.

Scott hopes to put a 10-year, 0.625% sales tax for capital improvements before voters in November. He’s also proposing a permanent 0.375% tax for city operations.

Parks & Recreation Director Leland Couch said the proposed sports complexes drew positive reactions this month at  public meetings.

The indoor facility would be either eight or 10 multipurpose courts, which could adapt for a variety of sports like volleyball, badminton, pickleball and others, Couch said.

The outdoor facility at an undetermined site in west Little Rock is envisioned as 16 multipurpose artificial turf fields with movable fencing to allow for baseball, softball, soccer be and even lacrosse, Couch said.

How much revenue to expect will depend on what kinds of facilities are eventually built.

If the complexes do come, the city will hire a management company to run it under city oversight. “They would manage each facility and be responsible for the different aspects of tournaments and play to make it successful from a revenue standpoint,” Couch said.


While Little Rock’s plans aren’t complete yet, Jonesboro is moving quickly to build a 200,000-SF, $77 million indoor sports complex over the next two years.

It will include a 60,000-SF natatorium for competitive swimming and diving, and 12 basketball courts convertible for volleyball and pickleball. Four of the 12 basketball courts will be housed in a space that will also be used as an event center.

The 80,000-resident city hopes to break ground later this year, and expects completion in 18 months or so, according to Craig Rickert, executive director of the Jonesboro Advertising & Promotion Commission.

“The overall goal is to increase sports tourism to Jonesboro and northeast Arkansas with a facility like this, and I think it will do a great job bringing people to town for tournaments and competitions that they are already in the rotation of attending,” Rickert said in an interview.

Nabholz’s Jonesboro office will build the complex.

The city will hire a third party to manage and run it. “We’re in the process right now of seeking out [requests for proposals],” Rickert said.

“Anybody that’s a parent or grandparent knows how much sports travel and sports tourism means in Arkansas and this part of the country, and it’s high time that Jonesboro really made a serious statement that we want to be part of that economy,” he said.

“We already have great outdoor facilities with our baseball and softball and shooting sports areas, and we also recently celebrated the opening of 13 miles of new and updated mountain bike trails,” Rickert said.  But now we’ll have a fantastic facility to get to the basketball and the volleyball and the swimming.”


Searcy’s plans for a community center and five turf-infield ball diamonds are part of a $93 million bond issue that residents approved in March with more than 61% of the votes.

Richard Stafford, Searcy’s planning and development director, said the fields and a sports-focused community center will be built on city-owned land at South Main and Booth streets.

The 23,000-resident city hopes to enhance recreation for inhabitants and attract tournaments and visitors, Stafford said. Turf fields resist rain-outs, and the $51 million community center and events space will feature indoor basketball, pickleball and volleyball courts, an indoor walking trail, exercise space and a climbing wall.

Searcy Mayor Mat Faulkner (Jace Faulkner)

The city parks department and the Searcy Youth Soccer Association are expected to oversee the facilities.

Polk Stanley Wilcox of Little Rock is doing architecture work, and Crafton Tull is handling civil engineering, landscape architecture and planning.

Mayor Mat Faulkner said the bond issue will also include an outdoor water park, improvements to existing ballparks and soccer facilities, a splash pad and destination playground at Berryhill Park, and extended trail systems and a food truck park.

“The community center … will also include a senior center, cafe, walking path, meeting rooms, and flex use spaces,” Faulkner said, for use by “all ages and demographics and ability levels.”

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