Wednesday, March 04, 2009

TOP STORY >> Plans go forward for track on old dump

Leader staff writer

There is no money in the coffers to pay for a 160-acre regional park that is supposed to be built at the old city dump in Cabot off Willie Ray Drive. But plans are moving forward for a bicycle racing track there that should be open by May.

Construction of the 1,200-foot long track shaped like a W or M is scheduled for March 28. It will cost $2,500 for the services of an expert on such tracks. The dirt, labor and heavy equipment will be provided by the city and Lonoke County, said Shawn Basinger, who first brought the idea for the track to Mayor Eddie Joe Williams while he was campaigning three years ago.

Williams took that idea and ran with it. He imagined a regional park with the availability of diverse activities – walking trails, pavilions, tent camping, an amphitheater – and he has promoted that vision since he first took office in 2007.

Working with former parks director Carroll Astin and the park commission, the vision became a $75,000 master plan produced by Carter Burgess.

For the most part, the programs offered by Cabot parks either pay for themselves or they are paid for by the various sports organizations that run them.

But there is no money for new construction. In fact, the city council approved paying about $200,000 extra to parks in 2008 to help cover cost overruns that are generally believed to be the result of poor management. A bookkeeper embezzled about $8,000. About $100,000 was withheld from employee paychecks and not remitted to the IRS. And the parks department books had not been audited as they should have been.

The Cabot Advertising and Promotion Commission, which oversees the 1.5 percent city hamburger tax which last year brought in more than $580,000, pays for new construction like the two-year-old community center and it paid for the master plan for the regional park that the commission said last week will have to be shelved indefinitely.

How the plan for the regional park will fit with the master plan for the existing park that is just in the beginning stages is unclear. Park commissioners said last week that they need to focus for the time being on improvements and programs that will produce revenue for the parks department.

Parks Director Larry Tarrant who has been on the job less than a year says he would like to build more baseball fields and a water park and add to the new community center so racquet ball could be offered. He also intends to add volleyball, youth wrestling and adult basketball to programs already offered at the center.

However, the mayor said this week that he wants to see the passive, regional park move forward. It is important to meet the needs of all the residents, he said. And lack of funds should not deter the parks system from continuing to grow.

“We can’t dry dock this ship,” the mayor said.

So who will pay for the regional park?

Williams said no one will pay for all of it. The plan by Carter Burgess is for a multi-stage, multi-million-dollar project that includes roads, water and sewer. Grants will hopefully pay for some of it, he said.

The National Bicycle League will pay the $2,500 for the construction of the hard-packed dirt bike track, Basinger said. And like the mayor’s plan for the rest of the park, Basinger said the five-acre bike park will be constructed in stages.

The track will be built followed by a gravel parking lot that will be paved later.

“Our hope was to get the track going and build around it as the funds come in,” Basinger said.