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Jay Jennings, a Little Rock-based writer and editor who once was a reporter for Sports Illustrated, has memories of War Memorial Stadium that are similar to my own.

In a September 2012 essay for Arkansas Life magazine, Jennings described War Memorial as a large structure whose "scale is still charming." Jennings contrasted the Little Rock stadium to the larger Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, a place he said "often seems controlled by technocrats," an edifice where college football is "bombast and spectacle."

"I usually park for free on Kavanaugh's commercial strip in Hillcrest and walk past modest houses to Markham, where the stadium suddenly rises in front of me," Jennings wrote. "It's a neighborhood stadium. That charm may be one reason the Bleacher Report website named War Memorial one of the top 50 stadiums in college football last year. ... The main façade's portal is a lovely piece of postwar simplicity, an example of a trend that one contemporary critic has described as 'the postwar revolt against the stylistic clutter of traditional moldings and ornamentation.' Over an aluminum canopy covering the entrance are three large windows made of translucent glass bricks (as are all of the external windows in the stadium), and these in turn are covered by an aluminum grill of six long horizontal bars and six shorter vertical bars, similar to what you might see on the front of cars of that vintage.

"The architects, Burks and Anderson, were liberal in their use of aluminum because at the time, Arkansas produced more of it than any other state in the country, and they wanted to showcase Arkansas materials. Above the grilled windows are three enormous aluminum plaques depicting football players in stylized action poses. I don't know who the artist is, but they're quite striking. ... Above them is a terrific midcentury-modern sans-serif font spelling out War Memorial Stadium. All of these elements speak of a thoughtful and sensitive public building."

I thought about Jennings' well-written essay during the recent news conference at which Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that he wants War Memorial Stadium to become part of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. The director of the department, Kane Webb, is a former sports reporter like Jennings and also a fan of the stadium. I, too, am a former sportswriter. I've played on that field in a high school playoff game, I've sat in the stands too many times to count, I've written newspaper stories in the press box and I've broadcast games from there on both radio and television.

"I love War Memorial Stadium," Webb said at the governor's news conference. "I saw my first college football game there in 1972. My dad took me to see Joe Ferguson and the Hogs. Unfortunately, they lost to Rice that day, but he gave me a souvenir on the way home to make me feel better. I played there at Catholic High for the Rockets. I covered dozens of high school and college games there as a sportswriter. Now on Friday nights, when the Rockets are home, I'm out there watching my daughter perform as a Mount St. Mary Rockette. It means a lot to me."

This has to be about more than sentiment, though. So how might War Memorial Stadium change under the direction of the Department of Parks and Tourism? Members of the commission that oversees the department seem excited about the opportunity to have a flagship facility in the state's capital city. They already operate 52 state parks, and Arkansas' parks system often is recognized as being among the best in the country. The potential synergies between the current War Memorial Stadium Commission and the Parks and Tourism Department are unlimited.

"It's in our wheelhouse," Webb said. "It's what we do in the hospitality and tourism business. We run facilities. We put on events. We serve the public, and we know how to get the good word out about Arkansas and its many attractions. ... We have an established record of getting things done, taking care of business, doing right by the taxpayers. Our team is ready for the challenge. I had a small group go out and meet with Jerry Cohen (the stadium manager) the other day. They speak the same language. It just seems like a natural fit for us. I really like the governor's idea of a feasibility study. It always helps to have an objective, outside look at something, especially when it comes to such an emotional and cultural touchstone for so many of us in Arkansas."

It would be even more exciting if the city of Little Rock, which owns the land around the stadium, would hire a team of landscape architects and transform War Memorial Park into all it can be.

When the golf course at what was then Fair Park was built in 1931, it was on the far western edge of the city. Now, it's in the middle of town. With an overabundance of municipal golf holes, it might be time to use such valuable greenspace as a place that will attract a broader segment of the city's population--a place where residents of Little Rock can run, walk, bike, fish, have picnics, play soccer, etc. Great cities have great parks. This area--despite city government's disastrous decision to sell Ray Winder Field several years ago so it could be turned into a parking lot--holds the potential of being a great park.

Jennings told me last week, "I'd love to see Little Rock and state leaders show some vision for that land that would make Little Rock a more attractive place to work and live."

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Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the director of corporate community relations for Simmons First National Corp. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 11/09/2016

Print Headline: Re-envisioning a park

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