Aquatic-center site discussed in Russellville

By Tammy Keith Originally Published March 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 15, 2013 at 11:33 a.m.
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David Jacobson, a Russellville High School swim team member, practices last year at Hendrix College’s pool in Conway. The swim team used the Hendrix pool after Arkansas Tech’s pool closed. Russellville city officials have proposed building an aquatic center. The Russellville swim team now goes to University of the Ozarks in Clarksville to practice, and the dive team uses the Hendrix facility.

— Russellville City Council members seem to agree that extending a 1-cent sales tax is vital for the city, but a proposed aquatic-center location has muddied the water.

A special election will be held in August asking voters to extend a 1-cent sales tax that otherwise would end in December, Russellville Mayor Bill Eaton said.

The proceeds of the tax will go toward several projects, including an $8.4 million aquatic center.

Eaton said it’s a “quality-of-place” issue and that the public is demanding such a facility.

“It started as kind of a brainchild after Arkansas Tech’s indoor pool was closed, and there were a lot of people who used that and found themselves with no place to go,” he said.

Tech officials said pool costs were “unsustainable” and closed the pool in December.

Russellville doesn’t have an indoor pool facility. M.J. Hickey Pool, opened in 1978, is the city-run outdoor facility.

It’s also adjacent to Russellville High School, a site that some aldermen said they prefer for the aquatic center.

ETC Engineers & Architects Inc. of Little Rock has designed a plan for an aquatic center that includes three indoor pools, including one with 10 lanes, and an outside pool, said Mack Hollis, recreation and parks director.

He said the aquatic center would be a “showcase” for the city.

Eaton agreed. “There’s not another municipal pool in the state that has a 10-lane pool, so we would have the largest one. … That’s the plan we’ve started with, anyway,” he said.

“We’ve traveled to different facilities that have been built, looking at what they did and how they did it,” he said.

Eaton said he doesn’t want the aquatic center to be “pigeon-holed” for any one group — it would be for the whole community.

After looking at a few sites, Vick Field on East Parkway Drive was proposed, Hollis said. Some aldermen have said the parking — about 85 spaces — is too limited there, and there isn’t room for growth.

Eaton said “parking is adequate” because overflow parking would be across Parkway at The Hughes Community Center.

After meeting with school district officials, ETC is reviewing plans to see what changes would be needed for the Hickey Park site.

Alderman Mark Tripp said input was gathered from residents and groups, from the Boy Scouts to the medical community, on what they want in a center.

“Nothing’s been finalized on location,” Tripp said. “At Vick Field right now, we have 85 parking spaces, and there’s no room for buses, and I don’t think that’s adequate,” he said.

“I’d be more for putting in a city park at Vick Field,” Tripp said.

Russellville School District Superintendent Randall Williams said there is a possibility that the district could donate some property for the facility if it is built in Hickey Park.

The Russellville High School swim team doesn’t have a place in Russellville to practice since Tech closed its pool.

“The school is working with the council and the mayor on giving them an option of looking at a site near the school, but if that doesn’t work out, we’re going to be 100 percent behind the mayor and the council to put the aquatic center wherever they put it,” Williams said.

He said the school would rent the facility for its swim team to use if an agreement is reached.

“We don’t want to run anything,” Williams said.

Councilman Martin Irwin, whose brother is also on the council, called the $8.4 million aquatic center proposal “dangerously irresponsible.”

Martin said he thinks the project is too large-scale.

“I think that’s a dream,” Irwin said. “We’re also looking at an $8.9 million fire station — I think that’s a little outrageous, too,” Irwin said.

“And, then, we’ve got $30 million that’s required over the next 10 years to replace the sewer system that nobody wants to talk about,” Irwin said.

However, alderman Mark Tripp said City Corp. officials have said they don’t need sales-tax money for the sewer project.

Martin said Russellville wants an aquatic park “bigger and better” than Heber Springs or Clarksville has.

“I’m not at all in favor of keeping up with the Joneses,” Irwin said.

“I’m certainly not opposed to doing something with the swimming pool and that facility,” he said of Hickey Park.

“You start with a swimming pool that the poorest kids in town get to use in the summertime. That’s what it is. You never take that away from them,” Martin said.

He said he thinks the aquatic center would deter the city’s underprivileged youth from swimming.

“I think you add cultural intimidation,” he said.

His brother, Seth Irwin, is serving his first term on the council.

“I’m all for it,” Seth, an avid swimmer, said of the aquatic center.

He said he travels to Hendrix College weekly to swim in its indoor facility.

“We are still exploring what location and, frankly, each of those locations has its own issues, and I don’t know if one would be remarkably better than the other,” Seth said.

“In my estimation, the parking is going to be a problem at the Hughes Center location,” he said. “Some parking problems can be alleviated if the center were at Hickey, and … Hickey has some of its own issues,” he said.

Tripp said he questions the space limitations at Vick Field.

“Do I think we can benefit from an aquatic center? Sure I do,” he said.

Tripp said he takes his children to the Alma Water Park.

“I see people from Russellville every time I’m there.

“My point on the school district is, it’s worth exploring. … Let’s rule it out by details,” Tripp said.

“Yes, it’s going to be an expensive [project] for the city; Hickey Park is an expense. [An aquatic center] also enhances quality of life; gives year-round recreation,” Tripp said.

Eaton said if the aquatic center is built at Vick Field, he anticipates maintaining M.J. Hickey Pool “until it comes to a point where the maintenance level is unreasonable in that regard. Everything has a life span,” he said.

The mayor said the aquatic center is “absolutely not” cost-prohibitive, adding that ETC includes maintenance in its proposals.

“There will be individual rates and family rates and all those kinds of things,” he said.

Tripp also mentioned that people would have to cross four lanes of traffic to park at The Hughes Center.

Russellville Recreation and Parks Commissioner J.W. Stratton, a father of three young children, said he’s excited about the proposed aquatic center.

“I know that everybody seems to be on board with it, and it’s something we need, just a big draw for the city,” Stratton said. He said the center is being designed where “the entire community can use it.”

He said having to cross Parkway for overflow parking “raises a red flag” for him.

Stratton said his concern is for the safety of children, senior citizens or any resident having to cross traffic on busy Parkway.

He said he likes the Hickey Park location.

“With visibility, people already know the pool is out there,” he said. “That would be a more natural location to me, as far as tying it into existing facilities,” and for growth of walking and jogging trails, he said.

“There’s a potential for expansion; whereas, at Vick Field, there’s not,” Stratton said.

Newly elected council member Spence Roberts, the Recreation and Parks Commission liaison, also mentioned parking concerns at the Vick Field site.

“The majority of parking would be across the street at The Hughes Center. Parkway is a major street in Russellville. That’s just one concern,” he said.

“It’s worth looking into making a deal with the school, not necessarily a partnership, but if they deeded us some land, there’s tons of possibilities there,” Roberts said.

“There’s the convenience of being close to the school. You would not have to bus people over; they could just walk,” he said.

“Everybody’s excited about it; I’m excited about it,” he said of the project.

Roberts also said he doesn’t know how much it will take to run the center.

“What’s it going to take to run it every year? Basically, how much is it going to lose each year?” he said.

Council member Randy Horton said the aquatic center is “a popular idea.”

“The only way we could afford to do one is to do it with one of our sales-tax renewals,” he said. “I think it’s the right time to do it.”

He said he wants more information before commenting on a site.

Alderwoman Freddie Harris said she is new to the council and wasn’t involved in discussions last year about the aquatic center.

“I think it’s needed. I think it’s very needed,” she said.

Harris said she wants to reserve judgment on the proposed location, “till I think more about it, because I can definitely see the pros and cons.”

Roberts attended a parks commission meeting last week, and he said, “We’re on hold” until ETC reports on the viability of the Hickey Park property.

The council hired ETC in August, according to the meeting minutes, which said “determining the facility location is the first priority.”

Eaton said he hopes to have a proposal for the aquatic center’s location by the end of the month.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or

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