Why it No Longer Makes Business Sense to Keep the Little Rock Course at 18 Holes
Rebsamen Golf Course (Image from rebsamengolf.com)
October 26, 2016
It seems much of the talk around War Memorial these days is mighty business oriented, involving either downsizing or efficiencies. For starters, the University of Arkansas had for decades played three or four football games a year at the Little Rock stadium, but those have been scaled back to one a year until 2018.
For business and recruiting reasons, after all, it simply makes more sense to play games in the Razorbacks’ much larger stadium in Fayetteville. Few folks will be surprised when that one game a year at War Memorial inevitably drops to zilch.
A week ago, Governor Asa Hutchinson got in on the action. He proposed slicing state general revenue for War Memorial Stadium from $895,171 to $447,647 in the fiscal year starting July 1, 2018. Naturally, such a move would streamline the state budget.
More efficiencies talk bubbled forth Tuesday morning, when the governor announced he aims to fold the independent governing body of War Memorial Stadium into the state’s parks and tourism department. As part of parks and tourism, the War Memorial Stadium Commission “will have greater access to grant funding. It is a natural fit, since parks and tourism is devoted to luring tourists to its premier event centers all across the state,” Governor Hutchinson said. “This is an example of an efficiency that expands the vision, the mission and the strength of War Memorial Stadium.”
The trend here is clear. Leaders of big public entities in Arkansas increasingly invoke the magic of private business by alluding to the almighty Bottom Line. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as they apply the same logic to every nook and cranny of War Memorial and the grounds that surround it.
And so, in the prevailing spirit of streamlining and ROI, it’s time Little Rock residents consider downsizing something else: the War Memorial Golf Course.
Little Rock skyline from Rebsamen’s hole 13
Currently, the city of Little Rock runs this 90-acre, 18-hole War Memorial Golf Course west of the stadium and nearby park. In theory, public golf courses are for the masses but the problem is the game itself doesn’t appeal to the masses. In 21st century Arkansas, it primarily appeals to a subset of the population: white male professionals and retirees.
So why use all 90 acres to benefit such a narrow demographic? Some of those acres could be converted into amenities that would appeal to a much larger pool of the population while also boosting Little Rock’s potential as a tech startup incubator. Now that’s efficiency. Because a golf course of this size, in the middle of the city that strives to appear forward thinking in the 21st century, isn’t the most business-savvy use of the public’s prime real estate.
Nationwide, golf’s popularity wanes. According to the National Golf Federation, the number of overall golfers is 24.1 million. Two years ago, that number was 24.7 million, and in 2005 it was 30 million. Since Arkansas is far from a golf hotbed — Golf.com ranks the state No. 42 in terms of golfiness — it’s unlikely to buck any national trends here.
City leaders in other parts of the country see the writing on the wall. They are downsizing their public courses and converting the land into amenities that raise the quality of living for a larger percentage of their residents.
Why shouldn’t Arkansans look at doing the same?
Imagine reducing War Memorial Golf Course’s 18 holes into a nine-hole course some time in the early 2020s. The resulting extra space could be turned into mixed-use space that is the recreational land equivalent of the popular mixed-use apartments/restaurant/shopping model used in so many of Little Rock’s most recent major commercial developments.
The idea is simple: fill the space with amenities appealing to a wider variety of people and age groups. Perhaps that means adding more biking/walking lanes, and/or a community garden or botanical garden. Add more benches and pavilions. Preserve green spaces that can be used for public art exhibits, mini concerts and pop-up type social and food events.
Rebsamen Golf isn’t a bad alternative
Let the people of Little Rock, circa 2016, decide what they want. Whatever they decide, chances are high it will differ from what officials decided the public would want in the 1940s when War Memorial Stadium and the course around it was built. And there are still the Rebsamen and Hindman public courses.
The more diversity the grounds around War Memorial provide, the better off Little Rock will be. Its city leaders repeatedly state they want to attract millennials and startup companies to its downtown and midtown areas. Chances are, those same potential relocatees don’t want green spaces in which they can only play golf. They want green spaces in which they can enjoy a variety of activities.
Rex Nelson, communications director for Simmons First National Bank, recently proposed downsizing War Memorial Golf Course to make space for soccer fields to go along with a potential youth sports complex. “War Memorial Stadium is part of a larger discussion about the need for facilities in Little Rock that attract youth soccer tournaments, basketball tournaments and similar events,” Mr. Nelson wrote in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Even when times are tough, people will go on the road, stay in hotels, eat out in restaurants, and spend money at sports venues to watch their children and grandchildren compete.”
Mr. Nelson goes on to mention a study that has produced a plan for “a large indoor multisports facility funded by a temporary half-cent city sales tax to transform War Memorial Park into one of the premier youth sports complexes in the region. In addition to the indoor facility, a reduced golf-course footprint could make room for soccer fields.” Granted, these same golf greens were recently redone. But good grass can be used for soccer and possibly lacrosse as well. Those sports, unlike golf, are growing rapidly in popularity.
Residents of central Arkansas would do well to learn from northwest Arkansas here. Bella Vista had long pinned its reputation on providing golf courses to executives and retirees. In an effort to market to younger adults, however, the city’s official website now promotes the area with more family-friendly outdoor activities, from hiking to mountain biking.
Likewise, almost all of the major public recreational projects being developed elsewhere in Benton County — from the new Lake Atalanta Park in Rogers to the Razorback Regional Greenway add-ons to the north side of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — involve multiuse green space and amenities that appeal to multiple generations. None of it involves golf courses, which take more money to keep up than trails.
Little Rock leaders well know they compete with more than Bentonville and Rogers when it comes to attracting the smart millennials who will fuel their city’s future growth. They also compete with metro areas across the nation.
Finding ways to better use the 90 acres on which War Memorial’s golf course sits is simply a good business move.
Hindman Golf Course