A proposed land swap involving Gillam Park and Granite Mountain Quarries is back on the table, and the city Parks and Recreation Department wants to hear from the public at a meeting Monday, Nov. 13, at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church, 5100 Frazier Pike. Supporters of the swap — including Audubon Arkansas, which supports the swap with a few reservations — say the trade will help preserve and expand one of the most pristine hardwood forests left in the state.
Some nearby residents, however, are concerned the trade will bring quarry boundaries, and blasting, closer to their homes, and at least one neighborhood activist wonders why the deal can’t be turned into a source of revenue through the leasing of mineral rights, with the funds plowed back into the largely defunct park’s crumbling facilities.
Audubon Arkansas signed a 99-year lease with the city in December 2005 on the 400 or so acres that Gillam Park encompasses, and plans to build a $5 million nature center on the site. Director Ken Smith was emphatic: If the city approves the swap, the new border must hold. Audubon will not be interested in investing into park development if there’s no guarantee that its land won’t shrink further.
Granite Mountain Quarries, headed up by Haskell Dickinson, has slowly advanced north, eating up Gillam Park land in the past.
However, Smith said, if Parks and Dickinson can clear up some long-standing problems concerning property lines and how the land would be used, a land trade would accomplish a number of goals.
The quarry company proposes to give the city a 130-acre L-shaped piece of property that intrudes into the park from the north in exchange for parcels west of Interstate 530 and along the southern edge of the park, a total of about 100 acres. The park’s borders would be squared off, allowing for easier — and “desperately needed” — management such as controlled burns, and eliminating the possibility of business or residential development jutting into the park.
Most importantly, Smith said, the trade would involve handing over land that is not as ecologically valuable as land the city will receive.
“The property that the quarry is wanting, while probably rich in rock value, is less valuable ecologically,” Smith said. “... The forests [and] the glades aren’t nearly as pristine as those in the land we hope to get.”
The issues that stopped a land swap in the past, Smith said, were questions of where the property line would run and how the land could be used.
“The line went too far into the good stuff, the stuff we wanted to protect,” he said. “Plus, the landowner had proposed a series of conditions on the city and on Audubon that we couldn’t agree to, such as you couldn’t do anything on your side of the line for a buffer of 200 feet. That’s a problem.”
If those problems can be rectified, Audubon would support the swap.
Parks director Truman Tolefree said the department is officially neutral on the swap now. After the hearing, he said, he will be better able to make a recommendation to the city board. “We want to hear from everybody,” he said.
One of the people Tolefree is sure to hear from come Nov. 13 is Gloria Springer. A member of the famous clan who helped settle and develop the area, Springer lives just outside the gates of Gillam Park, in the Homes at Granite Mountain apartment complex. While some Granite Mountain residents fear that a swap will bring blasting closer to their homes — several of which, they claim, have already been damaged — Springer doesn’t necessarily oppose the trade. She does think it could be handled in a way that would profit the city and help revitalize Gillam Park, however.
“Like we talk about in our [community] meetings, why wouldn’t they lease the land to get some kind of return on it for Parks or for Little Rock?” Springer said.
Springer said that money from a lease could be used to help restore and expand the facilities at Gillam Park, including the cracked and unusable swimming pool. The only restrooms in the park were in a building attached to the pool, and those are similarly unusable. For now, a green portable toilet stands at the edge of a parking lot, used mostly by Audubon volunteers.
“There’s only one big pavilion in there, and that’s going to go to Audubon,” Springer said. “We want one. We’d like a pavilion for when we have our family reunions and such. We could come back on our side of town and have those.”
Ken Smith said that while repairing swimming pools and building pavilions is not within the ability or mission of Audubon Arkansas, the land swap would benefit Gillam Park and the community by helping to attract more visitors there. As the number of visitors grows, Smith said, businesses will move in to serve them, and Little Rock will have to restore amenities and services to Gillam Park. His vision for the area, he said, is to have a nice place where families can gather, including new or restored restrooms, playground equipment, and meeting areas. He said Audubon is willing to work with the community and the city to see that vision accomplished.
“We have a desire to bring the whole park back,” Smith said. “We’re coming in there to make an investment of hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of dollars into the community. That will certainly attract new housing, and will bring people and investment from all over Little Rock.”
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