Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s proposed renovation of Townsend Park has generated strong reactions, with some voicing support and others expressing opposition.
A decision on the matter may come Monday night, when the Pine Bluff City Council is to consider a resolution calling for approval of a $450,000 appropriation as an “estimated, nonbinding” budget for a “reference point” of the project’s architectural planning.
The price tag for construction of three baseball fields and dugouts, concession stands, a concrete plaza and restrooms along with installation of new and fencing is figured at $767,601, with $267,601 already available in “previously committed bond monies and state grants.” The balance would be derived from reserve collections of the five-eighths cent capital improvement sales tax enacted by voters in 2011.
Hollingsworth was slated to join council members on a Townsend Park tour Friday morning. However, the event was all but rained out with the precipitation adding even more of a chill to temperatures in the low 40s. But the experience did little to dilute the already sharp opinions that most potential participants had previously formulated.
“The mayor doesn’t need to be spending any of that money like this,” Alderman Glen Brown said Friday afternoon. “That’s money for our multipurpose center. That’s what the tax was for. But I think at the rate she’s spending that money, we won’t have anything for the multipurpose center.”
Hollingsworth has said that a multipurpose center will be built.
“It has to be,” she said. “That’s one of the things the voters approved. But they also approved upkeep on and improvement to existing facilities. We need to take care of our current parks and recreation centers. The multipurpose center is several years away.”
“We need to go ahead and float a bond on the multipurpose center,” Brown said. “Most of the people I’ve talked to say the mayor is wanting to spend way too much money at Townsend Park and the Merrill Center. Like I’ve said before, I would be OK with spending about $100,000 in Townsend Park, but not any more.”
Alderwoman Thelma Walker and Alderman Charles Boyd had similar opinions.
“Something needs to be done in Townsend Park, but I don’t agree with the price as it’s marked right now,” Walker said. “I saw some things in the park that need some attention, but we don’t need to spend too much of the funds we’re collecting to pay off a bond issue on a multipurpose center. We need to live within our means, and I would question any funds being previously committed for a Townsend Park renovation.”
Boyd said that while he believes some improvements are justified within the park, he would like to see a “revised figure” on the project estimate.
“I just don’t want to be so fast spending our tax reserves before we’ve even started on a multipurpose center,” he said.
Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr., who said he played in the park as a youngster, believes it deserves a facelift.
“We need to go ahead and upgrade Townsend Park,” he said. “It’s 40 years behind time as such parks go, and by bringing it up to where it should be we would be creating an added attraction for Pine Bluff. I think it would generate revenue by attracting tournaments to the city.”
Sharing Holcomb’s view was Alderman Bill Brumett, who said he would “support the effort to help restore” the park.
“It would be a wise use of the money,” Brumett said. “Revitalizing the park’s baseball facilities would help to attract tournaments, bringing in quality players and teams and all the perks that would go along with that. It would help to re-energize our image as a baseball town. There are a lot of positives associated with this.”
Alderman Steven Mays also views the project as a “good investment opportunity.”
“It would be a great boost to the University Park area,” he said, “and I can also see where it could benefit the Dollarway School District. I can foresee where new baseball facilities here might bring in some new restaurants and maybe a hotel or motel or two nearby. Creating a modern baseball park here would be a great way to showcase the city and Pine Bluff’s love for the game.”
The park’s historical factor is important to Alderman Wayne Easterly, who said the baseball fields need to be “brought back to their past” grandeur.
“I’m for getting something done there,” he said. “I think we need to refurbish the park.”
Alderman George Stepps said he “saw some things” in his visit to the park that “caused me to have some new thoughts, which I’ll elaborate on at the council meeting Monday night.”
Stepps said he wants to be cautious on spending, but “would like to get something done at Townsend.”
A few mentors in the Cal Ripken Northern League, which has its games at Townsend Park, were on hand and shared their thoughts on the possible renovation.
“We’ve got 14 teams in our league and haven’t had a tournament here in years,” coach Kevin Jackson said. “We need to make the baseball fields here more attractive for our kids as well as other teams. This park needs to be updated.”
Coach Sebastian Stargell relishes the idea of renovation, but figures the city might be spending more than is necessary.
“I think I could build a major league park for the amount of money they’re wanting to put in here,” he said. “They could save a lot of money by having people more familiar with baseball and baseball fields involved in the planning.”
League Commissioner Albert King Jr. said he “can understand the sentiments” of the council members opposing the spending of tax reserves on the project. “But we do need something for our kids here,” he added. “We need something for them now, today. We don’t need to be so worried about something that may be 10 or 15 years down the road that we don’t take care of our kids today.”