In a tornado three years ago, Vilonia City Park suffered some damage, but in the April 27 tornado that hit the city, the park was wiped out.
“It’s a total loss over there,” Vilonia Mayor James Firestone said Monday.
“For a total rebuild, we’re looking at around $800,000,” Firestone said. In the April 2011 tornado, the park took a hit of about $125,000 in damage.
Brian Lane, a Vilonia dentist and president of the Vilonia Sports Association, used the word “leveled” to describe the damage the EF4-rated tornado did this time to the park.
Although some baseball fields and bleachers survived the 2011 EF2 tornado, “not this time,” Lane said.
“Everything is wadded up. All the light poles are down and even some of the dugouts. The dugouts were still fine last time, … a couple of dugouts left. … They’re basically leveled,” Lane said. “Even the concession stand was leveled, and it’s a block building.”
The tornado affected many of the 500 softball and baseball players’ families, too, he said.
“Kids, it’s rough on them,” he said. “I had two little girls on my team; they lost their house and everything.”
Cameron Smith, 9, who was killed in the tornado, played on one of the baseball teams, Lane said.
He said the association wants to do something to recognize Cameron.
“We’ll probably do a memorial out there at the park,” Lane said. “Nothing’s been done, but we would like to try to do that.”
He said baseball will be played beginning next week at City of Colleges Park on Siebenmorgen Road in Conway, and Vilonia softball started this week at the Greenbrier city softball fields.
“We’re so appreciative to Greenbrier and Conway. … It at least gives kids some normalcy,” Lane said.
“I had several kids ask me, ‘How are the [Vilonia] baseball fields and softball fields?’ Well, they’re gone,” Lane said he told them.
Even though City of Colleges Park is a girls softball complex, “the fields are big enough that they can work for baseball as well,” said Jessie Ross, program and marketing manager for the Conway Parks and Recreation Department. “The pitching mounds and bases will be the same distance as always.”
Donations to the Vilonia field-reconstruction project can be made by going to www.viloniasports.net.
Vilonia is on the verge of starting construction on a $1.5 million softball and soccer park on 17 acres on North Mount Olive Road. Paid for with revenue from a half-cent sales tax for park and recreational improvements, voters approved a bond sale in 2013 for the project.
The new park will have four softball fields, seven soccer fields and a concession stand.
“We’re ready to go to bid with dirt work,” Firestone said.
Michael Johnson, president of the Vilonia Soccer Club, said the soccer goals at the existing park “all are totally destroyed.”
Johnson said earlier this week that he has not made his way down Cemetery Road to look at the park because he is trying to stay out of the way.
The Vilonia City Park had one soccer field, where the teams practiced, he said.
“From the pictures I’ve seen, the goals are all gone, the bleachers are gone, the fence is all gone, and that’s important because that field is next to the road,” he said.
Some members of the younger soccer teams had homes damaged or destroyed by the tornado, Johnson said, and lost all their soccer equipment.
Johnson said he hopes the park project can be fast-tracked.
“We’d be willing to put a lot of money ourself to the development of those fields,” Johnson said, referring to money collected through fundraising.
Firestone said that would be “great” if the soccer association gave money earmarked for soccer to the city’s parks and recreation fund.
Whether the project will go faster or slower because of the tornado, Firestone isn’t sure.
“It takes a little time,” he said, adding that the utilities must be put in place first.
“We’re aware of the needs, and of course, the kids’ needs are right at the front of the list,” Firestone said.
Despite the devastation in their community, and to some of them personally, Vilonia soccer teams played Saturday in an end-of-the-year tournament at Burns Park in North Little Rock.
The Vilonia Vipers, an 10-and-under girls team, was on the field as the girls from a Little Rock team arrived carrying plastic tubs of donations.
Hatim Smouni, coach of the Westside YMCA 10-year-old girls team in Little Rock, said his team has played the Vilonia team in the past, and the players wanted to help.
Smouni said his players’ parents were each asked to gather 20 items, “fun things,” he said, reeling off a list that included stuffed animals, jump ropes, makeup, lip gloss and soccer socks.
A printed note card was placed inside each container that read: “The Westside Chili Peppers Soccer Team of Little Rock are praying for you all in Vilonia. We hope these small gifts will help start to rebuild your broken hearts.”
Later, a Texarkana team wore shirts on which was printed on front: “Pink Panthers Play & Pray for Vilonia,” with Vilonia written across an outline of Arkansas.
“I couldn’t believe how kind all of the other teams were,” Vipers coach Brandi Starnes of Conway said. “All of the teams we played came over to our bench before the games to thank each of our girls for coming, and one team even went over and thanked the parents. The girls seemed surprised by how much was being done for them. I think it was great for them to get out of Vilonia for the day and see how much everyone from around the state cares about them.”
After their game, the Texarkana team gave the girls on the Vilonia team the shirts.
Still another team brought shin guards, balls and some equipment to a Vilonia soccer team.
A fast-food vendor at the North Little Rock park gave proceeds from sales Saturday to the Vilonia Soccer Club, and donations were taken, too.
The Arkansas State Soccer Association is raising funds through its website, www.arkansassoccer.org, and as of Monday had raised $1,000 toward the association’s $5,000 goal.
Gayle Smith, executive director of the state association, said Monday that although not everything had been tallied, about $3,000 had been raised.
“I’ve had a lot of clubs contact me, so I think we’ll reach our goal,” Smith said.
Johnson said that in addition to donations at last weekend’s tournament, “we generally just had a lot of people coming up to us and say they’re praying for us and wishing us well.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.