Benton man’s career focused on place for area residents to play

By Wayne Bryan Published March 9, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

John Eckart has been director of the Benton Parks and Recreation Department since September 2012. In that capacity, he has witnessed the birth of a splash pad at Tyndall Park and the opening of the Benton Dog Park. Next on the agenda, according to Eckart, is creating Riverside Park, an area that will stretch from the access road to Sunset Lake near the old Saline County Airport to the Saline River.

It is understandable if John Eckart smiles and his heart beats a little faster when he drives by the old Saline County Airport runways off Interstate 30 in south Benton.

While most of us might see the two paved lanes running in the field next to the Saline County Fairgrounds, in his mind’s eye, he must see large buildings, sports fields and parking spaces waiting for Benton’s residents.

“In 2013, we asked residents what kind of new recreations facilities they would like to see in town. Overwhelmingly, the people said they wanted a community center,” said Eckart, who has been director of the Benton Parks and Recreation Department since September 2012. “They also wanted a public pool, a dog park and a splash pad.”

A new splash pad at Tyndall Park opened June 21, and the Benton Dog Park opened Oct. 25 on Fairfield Road.

“Those were the items at the top of the list that we could do with the budget we had,” Eckart said. “Now the other items at the top of the residents’ wish list are coming.”

The land at the old airport will be transformed over the next 2 1/2 years into Riverside Park, which Eckart said will someday stretch from the access road to Sunset Lake and on to the Saline River.

On a low hill now occupied by the Saline County Road Department, where the county parks its trucks, the new community center — to be named RiverCenter — will be built.

Next to the community center will be a public pool and water-sports center that Eckart said will be called the Natatorium. And at the crest of a small hill on the property, the city plans to build a senior adult-activity center.

Another building, which will be the new home of the Boys & Girls Club of Saline County in Benton, will be built at the new street corner of Jackman and Citizen streets.

“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.”

Both the senior center and the Boys & Girls Club will be built and owned by the city, but the plan is to lease the facilities to the club and the senior-services agency.

“It is exciting to be in this town at this time,” Eckart said. “When I first got to Benton, the recreation facilities were not up to standards for a community this size. It was mostly paths and playgrounds.

“Coming is a large gathering place for people and a park that will have something for every generation — from seniors to kids. Riverside Park will touch everyone in town.”

Eckart said a meeting was held Wednesday with the architects of Black Corley Owens & Hughes in Benton to get them started on the designs for the new buildings and the land design of the park.

“We hope to be very close to having the design work ready this fall,” Eckart said. “We could be moving dirt as early as May to midsummer as we build roads through the park site.”

Eckart said that while there is much to be done, he believes that the request he received in a call from Benton Mayor David Mattingly to have the park open by the fall of 2016 is doable.

The recreation director said the facilities in the new park will draw more than just Benton and Saline County residents.

“We will have people coming to things from Texas and Oklahoma and the other states around us,” he said. “Not only will [we] 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 will not only provide a public indoor pool, but will allow members of the Benton swim team to practice in their hometown as well as host events. With four basketball courts in the RiverCenter, which Eckart said could be converted to eight volleyball courts, and three more basketball courts available at the nearby Boys & Girls Club, the city could host regional tournaments.

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

The RiverCenter will include a fitness area with exercise equipment and will house 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 will be a softball complex with five fields, including one that will meet national competition standards for tournaments.

The dog park will be linked to the new park near the softball complex.

When he was hired in 2012, Eckart said the job would be an interesting challenge.

“I’ve always been interested in athletics and recreation,” he said. “I knew I would never be a professional athlete, but I always knew I wanted to work in sports and outdoor activities.”

A native of Russellville, Eckart was a track-and-field athlete at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and was named Sunbelt All-Conference in cross country. While there he met and married Tanja Rodovic, who was an outstanding volleyball player recruited from Europe by UALR. She was named to the university’s Sports Hall of Fame a few years after she graduated.

“She’s the same height as me,” Eckart said, “but she can really jump!”

While he earned a degree in finance, followed by both of them earning Master of Business Administration degrees at UALR, Eckart worked for the university’s athletic department in facility operations, and she had a brief career with the Chicago Thunder in the short-lived United States Professional Volleyball League.

His wife then became an assistant volleyball coach at Florida International University in Miami, and in 2005, he was named assistant athletic director for facilities and operations.

“That job was a lot of fun,” Eckart said. “It was great to be part of creating a $35 million football stadium and then looking after its operation.”

He said the venue first opened with 18,000 seats but has since been expanded to seat 25,000 spectators.

Along with the football field at FIU, Eckart managed a basketball arena, baseball and softball fields, tennis courts and other sports facilities. He also looked after the athletic equipment and landscaping at the sports venues.

After the birth of the couple’s second child, Eckart said, he moved his family back to Arkansas to be closer to family. Eckart said he believes that stadium-building experience is one of the major reasons he was selected for the job in Benton.

The parks director said that while the new Riverside Park is being built, other improvements in the parks system will go on.

“We will continue to upgrade Tyndall Park by fixing the walking trails and resurfacing the tennis courts,” he said. “We will also be renovating the adult softball fields.”

It all makes for an exciting future for Eckart.

“We will be very busy,” he said, “but we have a good team together, not only for seeing the building go up but for its operations afterward.”

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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