Arkansas angler and fishing expert Billy Murray shares his extensive knowledge of the Diamond Lakes of Arkansas
The exterior of Ray Winder Field looks much the same as it did when the Arkansas Travelers recorded their final out last September. Prices are listed over the ticket windows, scorecards are advertised to the right of the turnstiles, and there’s still a three-can limit on beer.
There has been one unsightly addition, however: lines of barbed and razor wire, placed anywhere an intruder might hope to gain access to the interior. They give the grandstand the air of a juvenile detention facility. The wire is intended to keep vandals out, but it also forbids a full view of a field in deep disrepair. Through the aisle that separates the grandstand from the bleachers on the third-base side and through holes and gaps in the outfield walls, one can glimpse the state of neglect. Grass is dying in the outfield and growing in the infield. The clock over the scoreboard is stuck at 10:11. The pitching mound that Ferguson Jenkins and Jim Bunning once threw from is now covered with weeds, as are the base paths and warning track, where the shrubbery has sprung up to over a foot.
Why is the once-noble diamond no longer in a condition to host baseball? Chalk it up to typical bureaucratic sluggishness combined with a good old-fashioned staring contest between the Travelers, who have moved to a new park in North Little Rock, and the city of Little Rock. Assistant City Manager Bryan Day says that there has been no official request for help from the Travelers. Bill Valentine, the Travelers’ executive vice president, complains that he hasn’t heard anything from the city. And as the planning for surrounding War Memorial Park’s redevelopment plods along, the fate of Ray Winder hangs in the balance.
A complicated park ownership structure makes the foot-dragging easier. The land under Ray Winder is co-owned by the city and the state; roughly speaking, the city has the part from the first-base line running west. The state owns the rest, 3.35 acres. It gives the War Memorial Stadium Commission, a state agency, first right of refusal on offers for its portion. The Travelers, who have never paid rent on the land, own the above-ground improvements — grandstand, dressing rooms, offices, concession stands. The club has liability insurance for the stadium and retains the utilities, but, as the current field condition attests, that’s the extent of the upkeep. According to Valentine, the team will stop those payments at the end of the year.
“Why do we want to sit on Ray Winder Field?” he asks.
There certainly hasn’t been a lack of ideas for what to do with the stadium. The Little Rock Zoo, which is located west of the park across a parking lot, wants the space for an elephant exhibit. Other plans would keep baseball in the mix: one ambitious drawing from Reese Rowland, a member of the citizen task force considering War Memorial Park’s redevelopment, retains the grandstand and converts it into a mixed-use development that overlooks a spruced-up playing field. Additions might include a community resource center, residential and office space, a restaurant, and a workout center. The project would require major investment, however, and for the time being that’s not forthcoming.
Whatever the price tag is, it won’t be cheap. Valentine is skeptical that anyone will be able to come up with the money to keep the stadium functional.
“We spent $150,000, $200,000 every year to keep up the ballpark, and that’s just for maintenance. I don’t see how you’re going to pay for it,” he said.
He estimates that the new owner would need to sink $15,000 a month into Ray Winder, plus at least $10 million to fix years of decay: a roof that was put in over 70 years ago, metal light poles that haven’t been sanded or painted in more than two decades, and steel in the grandstand that’s rusting.
Perhaps the most realistic hope for baseball fans — and for anyone who wants to see something happen to the space, for that matter — is an idea being pushed by Rex Nelson, a member of the War Memorial task force, and Russ Meeks, general counsel to the Travelers. The duo is planning a non-profit that would collect private donations to return the field to baseball shape. The new Ray Winder would host high school, college and senior games. If all went according to plan, it could even be used to host regional tournaments. (Meeks and Nelson have also entertained the thought of trying to put a Texas League Museum in a refurbished Ray Winder, but that would be put on the back burner until the renovations are complete.)
Although Meeks is hesitant to give a number, he says that he and Nelson have already recruited “quite a few [backers] — a lot of people have made informal commitments.” The planners are working on drawing up budgets, and they expect to file papers establishing the non-profit soon. Meeks acknowledges the financial challenge at hand, but he suggests that the non-profit will be able to cut costs by not using the whole facility at every game — concessions and labor could be reduced, for example. He said the city might appreciate some help solving the Ray Winder question, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt if the funding were already lined up.
“It’s incumbent on us to make sure the city doesn’t have to spend money it doesn’t have,” Meeks says — “although it will certainly be given the opportunity to contribute.”
Regardless of all the planning, the field seems destined to lie fallow for the foreseeable future. Meeks says the summer will pass before his group really gets moving. The city can’t be expected to act any sooner — Vice Mayor Stacy Hurst, who heads the redevelopment task force, said a consultant for the project will be in town for a meeting this month, but the ballpark won’t be on the agenda.
“Our concern, considering the value of the real estate, has been that it gets the maximum use,” Hurst says. Unless someone takes the initiative, Ray Winder will continue to have no use at all.
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