New Benton park to have community center

By Wayne Bryan Published January 9, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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A rendering of the proposed RiverCenter community center would be the main facility in the new Riverside Park in Benton. The center would include basketball and volleyball courts, space for civic events, offices, exercise equipment and meeting rooms.

City officials asked Benton residents almost a year ago what kind of new facilities they would like to see in town.

“Overwhelmingly, the people said they wanted a community center,” said John Eckart, director of the Benton Parks and Recreation Department. “They also wanted a public pool, a dog park and a splash pad.”

The splash pad at Benton’s Tyndall Park opened in July, and the Dog Park on Fairfield Road has been operating since just before Halloween.

Following the voters’ approval on Nov. 12 of a half-cent park tax for what Benton Mayor David Mattingly called “quality-of-life issues,” the other items on the residents’ want list are on the way.

“We are in the process of buying some property from the A&P Commission that will be the gateway into Riverside Park from the Interstate 30 service road,” Mattingly pointed out while standing on a runway of the old Saline County Airport. “We should have the deal closed by July 31, or sooner.”

The land being purchased would give access to the service road below the 116 exit next to the Saline County Fairgrounds. The entrance would feature a 20- by 20-foot electronic sign that would list the events happening at the park.

“We would tear down the old hangars and build Citizen Drive into the park land,” Mattingly said. “Jackman Drive would be extended to cross the park.”

Standing with Eckart, Mattingly pointed across to a low hill now occupied by the Saline County Road Department. He said a spot between the mounds of gravel and where the county parks its trucks would be the site of the new community center, to be named RiverCenter.

Next to the community center would be a public pool and water-sports center being called the Natatorium. And at the crest of the small hill, the city plans to build a senior adult activity center.

Another building, a Boys & Girls Club of Saline County in Benton, would be built at the new corner of Jackman and Citizen, the mayor said.

It will be a 50,000-square-foot facility, Eckart said. “It will allow the club to take around 800 children into its afternoon and summer programs, about double the number they can handle today in their existing facility,” he said.

Mattingly said the senior center and the Boys & Girls Club would be built and owned by the city but would be leased to the club and the senior services agency.

The mayor said the Benton Street Department could begin work on the roadways to and through the park as early as May or June.

“Those projects would not come from the new tax but would be part of the regular street-improvement funds,” Mattingly said. “Work on the utilities and other infrastructure could start in the fall. We should have things done by fall of 2016.”

Eckart said that while the project has not yet gone to architects and some studies have to be made, he called the fall 2016 date a conservative guess and said work might be done before then.

Mattingly said Riverside Park will combine with the proposed residential and retail development near exit 114 on I-30 to energize a new future for that part of Benton.

“The Benton Town Center will have 800 new homes and 800,000 square feet of retail development,” he said. “This area is growing already. Can you imagine what will be happening when all of this is in place? Benton will have a chance to be competitive for a lot of things.”

The mayor said his optimism was backed by the success of the Benton Event Center. He said the center has been visited by 16,600 people since it opened Oct. 1, and Eckart said some surveys show some 45 percent of those visiting the center have been nonresidents.

Eckart said the facilities that will be in the new park will also draw visitors from around the state and outside Arkansas.

“We will have people coming to things from Texas and Oklahoma and the other states around us,” he said. “Not only will be able to show people what we can do in this community; we will be able to fulfill the needs of our citizens with things like the pool, soccer camps and other sports events.”

The Natatorium would not only provide a public indoor pool but would allow the Benton swim team to practice in their hometown and host events. With four basketball courts in the RiverCenter, which Eckart said could be converted to eight volleyball courts, and three more available at the nearby Boys & Girls Club, the city could host regional tournaments.

“We could hold AAU regional, or even national, competitions in basketball and volleyball,” he said. “There could be up to 120 teams taking part for volleyball from regions beyond Arkansas.”

“We want to bring those events to our children, to where they will always have the home-court advantage,” Mattingly said.

The RiverCenter will include a fitness area with exercise equipment and will be the new headquarters of the parks department.

Beyond the community center, plans call for a soccer complex with three fields and stands. South of the soccer fields and next to the Barnard Holland Baseball Complex, there would be a softball complex with five fields, including one that would meet national competition standards for tournaments.

Mattingly said improvements would also be made at the popular baseball complex to bring it up to the standards of the rest of the park.

Next to the baseball complex would be sand volleyball areas, restrooms and other amenities, down the hill from the Dog Park and connecting all the facilities with Sunset Lake Park.

Since opening in October, the off-the-leash Dog Park has been a popular spot for dog owners. There are separate sections for large and small dogs and an agility course and other training equipment in the park.

“The park is great,” said Marlon Alarcom of Benton, who was at the park with his dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback named Moe. “We have come here four or five times since the park opened.”

Alarcom talked with other dog owners while his dog roamed the enclosure.

Eckart said the new park will be designed to serve people on a daily basis.

“We want to attract people from all around to the community and the park,” he said, “but make sure we will still be able to bring something special to our residents. This is a great time to be here.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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