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Virus Has City Parks Scrambling to RecoverLock Icon

7 min read

Jonesboro’s city parks offer a sad sight these days: childless playgrounds, ringed off by yellow caution tape.

“I’m a parks guy,” Parks & Recreation Director Danny Kapales said, “and that sight about breaks your heart.”

The playgrounds are open at Little Rock and North Little Rock parks, but those cities’ community centers remain shut down.

“Our community centers, pools, splash pads and our fitness center [the Jim Dailey Fitness & Aquatic Center] are our main closed amenities,” Little Rock Parks & Recreation Director John Eckart told Arkansas Business on Tuesday.

“But playgrounds, golf courses, the tennis center and the [MacArthur] military museum are all open.”

Eckart reopened playgrounds on Friday, citing new data on transmissibility from surfaces. “It’s been downgraded as a likelihood,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed Arkansas’ municipal park programs, shutting down pavilions, pools and soccer programs. Basketball hoops have vanished from parks and recreation centers, where gym floors can rent for $40 an hour.

The virus also looms over summer sports programs in dozens of Arkansas towns, complicating budgeting, parks directors say. The patchwork of closings and reopenings left park users checking their towns’ websites regularly for updates.

“We do not have any league sports at this time, and I don’t expect us to have youth baseball this summer,” Eckhart said, although Junior Deputy youth baseball is expected to start up within weeks on leased Little Rock city fields off Cantrell Road in Riverdale.

Splash pads are open in Conway, where park playgrounds also reopened last week. But the Don Owen Sports Center and the McGee Center downtown remain closed indefinitely. Fayetteville is reopening youth baseball and adult softball diamonds, but the Yvonne Richardson Community Center remains shut down.

“Some cities closed down parks altogether; others have been reopening programs,” said Linda Burgess, an attorney with the Arkansas Municipal League who has been fielding calls from towns. “Each city is unique, and they’ve been trying to do what’s best for their citizens.”

‘Quite Traumatic’

North Little Rock Parks & Recreation chief Terry Hartwick opened the city’s pools and splash pads last week.

“I did just open them up, but almost two weeks late,” Hartwick said on Tuesday. “We’re trying to get started with baseball, but we had to cancel all of our soccer, which is hugely popular.”

Jonesboro’s splash pads and playgrounds are still off limits, Kapales said, “because there’s no control of kids, for social distancing, on a playground. We’re waiting on the opportunity to safely open them up.”

More than a half-dozen parks leaders who spoke with Arkansas Business emphasized safety measures like social distancing, sanitization and capacity limits at pools and venues. They also noted that outdoor exercise, fresh air and sunlight are healthful, as long as social distancing, masks and crowd limits are kept in mind.

Hartwick, a former North Little Rock mayor who’s running for that office again, said park-goers aren’t the only citizens suffering; shutdowns have hampered the city’s day care and food programs. “It’s been quite traumatic,” he said. “All of our community centers, where our weight rooms and a lot of our day cares are, are not open. I have five of those community centers — North Little Rock, Sherman Park, Glenview, North Heights and Rose City — and all of those have been shut down. So it’s not just people enjoying the parks; this has affected families, and our efforts to feed those kids.”

Jonesboro’s city pool, with a capacity of 390, is allowing only half that many in, and the city has revamped customer flow at park concession stands, eliminating multiple lines.

Cabot’s Parks & Recreation Department canceled all spring sports programs in April, but opened tournament baseball and softball venues with 33% capacity on June 6, according to Travis Young, the department’s executive director, and Summer Springer, event center and marketing manager. The town’s Veterans Park Community Center reopened May 4.

“When we opened back up to the public at the Veterans Park Community Center, we made the decision to not auto-renew our memberships,” Springer said. “We chose to reinstate members as they came in, ensuring they were comfortable with the facility.”

Springer said everyday routines have evolved, “from wearing face masks, a comprehensive sanitation schedule, and the way we interact with our members.”

With a $3.4 million annual budget funded only 30% to 35% by taxes, Cabot’s parks are among many expecting budget adjustments. “We generate 60% to 75% of our income,” Springer said in an email. “May, June and July are our biggest revenue-generating months, and we won’t fully know the impact of this epidemic until the end of the summer.”

Parks’ revenues from gym floor and pavilion rentals, concessions, pool admission and other streams are off by nearly half during the pandemic, several municipal parks directors said. And they fear lingering budget effects next year.

“I think we’re going to see probably a 40% to 50% loss in revenue from our programs, and our golf courses took a hit,” said Eckart, the Little Rock parks chief. “They opened May 9, so they were out for about a month and a half.” He estimated total lost revenue so far at $250,000; the department’s total annual budget is $13.6 million.

Kapales faces a similar crunch in Jonesboro, where parks have a $3 million annual budget and 23 full-time employees. “We’re fortunate here to have a mayor [Harold Perrin] who’s smart in budgeting and funding, and he’s held a reserve so this hasn’t impacted us yet,” Kapales said. Jonesboro has spent extra money on fogging machines and disinfectant for facilities like restrooms, and those costs in tandem with lost revenue are causing pain, he said.

“You start looking at concession revenues and leagues and pavilion rentals, and it adds up,” Kapales said. “All our community centers are shut down, so we’re not renting out gym floors or classrooms. We’re not having birthday parties. I’d say that we could be in the $150,000 range on lost revenues right now.”

A big summer basketball league that usually attracts 1,100 youngsters may be canceled, he said. “We’re still in the dark on whether we’ll have that program this year,” Kapales said. “But on the other hand, we were able to start softball with a tournament of 30 traveling teams” instead of the usual 90 or 100 teams for local tournaments.

“We’ve changed how we operate our bleachers, and put youth league games on adult fields, putting up 200-foot fences that turn the big outfields into spectator areas where people can space out.”

North Little Rock’s park pavilions opened two weeks ago, and Hartwick estimated that total revenue loss of $150,000 for the park system this spring.

“Fun Land [the amusement park in Burns Park] is not open yet. That’s coming soon, but we’re looking at all of this one week at a time. Those gym floors rent for $40 an hour, and it isn’t just basketball. It’s dance, it’s cheerleading, it’s gymnastics. All those things happen on our gym floors, even aerobics and what’s that called when the ladies dance? Rumble? No, Zumba!

“This affects so many people,” Hartwick continued. “On some weekends, we’ve had these 10,000 people come through our gates for soccer games on our 17 fields. So when you’re talking about all the Little League games, softball games, American Legion games … that’s all been canceled since March.”

While North Little Rock hasn’t yet turned swimmers away because of crowding, Cabot Aquatic Park routinely reaches its new half-capacity, Springer said.

Allowed a 250-person maximum, “we expect to be at capacity every day,” her email said. “This past Saturday, June 6, we were at capacity within 35 minutes of opening and stayed at capacity until 3 or 4 pm.”

The Arkansas Department of Health issued a directive June 1 for community and school leagues, differentiating close-contact sports like basketball, soccer, cheerleading and dance from limited-contact sports like baseball, golf and tennis. Close-contact sports face greater restrictions.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued broad guidelines on safety in parks, but parks officials also take their cues from their constituents, mayors and city councils.

“We communicate with other parks departments, and we follow guidelines, but we also have a mayor and a City Council and our local public to answer to,” said Kapales, in Jonesboro. “So once the governor puts out directives, we have to pay attention to what our public wants done.”

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