Study finds $17 million needed to update Little Rock's aging War Memorial Stadium

By: Ginny Monk
Published: March 17, 2018 at 4:30 a.m. - Updated: March 19, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.
Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, shown in this 2014 file photo, is in need of up to $17 million, according to a feasibility study released this week. Much of that is in addition to the up to $10 million in renovations the University of Arkansas says is needed to continue hosting Razorback football games there.
Photo by Benjamin Krain
Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, shown in this 2014 file photo, is in need of up to $17 million, according to a feasibility study released this week. Much of that is in addition to the up to $10 million in renovations the University of Arkansas says is needed to continue hosting Razorback football games there.

War Memorial Stadium needs about $17 million worth of maintenance work and improvements to remain in useful condition, according to a Texas-based group's feasibility study on the facility's future.

The Conventions Sport & Leisure International LLC study, released Monday, suggested 34 improvements to the Little Rock stadium's structure and amenities necessary to maintain the building.

The "critical" changes need be made within three years, and the "noncritical" within five, according to the $160,000 study commissioned by the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

Most stadiums outlive their usefulness after 45 years at most; War Memorial is 70 years old, the study pointed out.

The parks department is digesting the results of the study as the agency faces the end of its contract with the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and a slashed state general-revenue budget for the stadium.

The Arkansas Razorbacks have played a football game in the Little Rock stadium every year since it opened in 1948, but the last scheduled game before the contract runs out is against the University of Mississippi in October.

"Discussions are continuing" about the future of the games, Kevin Trainor, associate athletics director at Arkansas, said via email.

"They know we want them. We're both aware of when the contract is up, and it's open lines of dialogue," said Kane Webb, director of the Parks and Tourism Department. Webb's department manages War Memorial Stadium, although a nearby park belongs to the city.

Newly hired UA Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek announced this year that the annual Red-White spring game will be at War Memorial on April 7.

Documents exchanged between UA and Parks and Tourism Department officials last year revealed that up to $10 million in improvements are necessary for War Memorial to continue to have Razorback games. These changes would be for fans, TV partners and to meet anticipated changes in requirements from the Southeastern Conference, according to previous reporting from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The $17 million noted in the study does not include requirements to meet Southeastern Conference standards.

Instead, it addresses needs such as storage capacity, replacing the turf and "antiquated and significantly undersized" food-service spaces.

The turf replacement was already scheduled for 2019, Webb said, "because its shelf life is about up."

Finding money to pay for the suggested improvements will be a challenge because Gov. Asa Hutchinson's fiscal 2018 general-revenue budget cut the stadium's funds in half, to $447,647.

Webb said his department will look at "alternate sources of revenue," some of which were proposed in the study. Most suggestions for increased income involved attracting more events to the stadium.

War Memorial draws about 273,000 attendees to 225 events each year, the study noted. Events include birthday parties, high school football games and Little Rock Rangers soccer games.

But the field is not regulation size for soccer. It's not wide enough -- soccer fields are 75 yards wide, and the corners of the field at War Memorial are curved where they would need to be square.

"I don't think that it would be a huge undertaking to do that," Webb said of making the fields soccer-ready.

The Little Rock Rangers are also on a target list to move up a tier to the United Soccer League because of their high annual attendance figures, and, if they did, it would be a use for War Memorial, according to the study.

High school football games make up nearly 10 percent of the stadium's annual events, and none of the schools that play there expressed any need for significant improvements, according to the study.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Arkansas State University and the University of Central Arkansas all said they were interested in playing in Little Rock and would not need additional changes to the stadium.

The city and War Memorial management had been in talks with the NCAA about adding a bowl game in Little Rock, but the study stated that, although the possibility had not been specifically ruled out, it wasn't likely.

Adding more concerts also seemed unlikely because Verizon Arena draws more performers. War Memorial has only had two concerts in the past 15 years, and even if renovations are made, promoters were reluctant to book a stadium concert in Little Rock, according to the study.

There is also a possibility of USA Rugby matches coming to War Memorial if listed improvements are made, including widening the field to 308 by 223 feet. The organization is looking to move its headquarters from Colorado and may be interested in coming to Little Rock, according to the study.

Another source of revenue could be found in War Memorial Park, which is city-owned. The study suggested removing the golf course in favor of restaurants and housing that would be subject to property tax.

The land could support up to 500 multifamily homes, 120 hotel rooms, general office space, and 65,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, according to the report.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola was not keen on the idea of getting rid of the golf course. He said it had been proposed before and city residents were not happy.

"Basically when the board was asked to consider that, quite a contingency of voters came to the meeting with their 9-irons and were ready to put them in the back of our heads," Stodola said with a laugh.

He added that he is not sure the city should start getting rid of park space because it detracts from quality of life, even if it adds revenue.

"To take that amenity and commercialize it, I think you would find that the public would have some great concern about that," he said. "So one has to be very careful walking down that road."

The study also pitched a 1 percent city goods and services tax that would yield $5.5 million. A portion of that money would be used for stadium renovations while the rest would be used on the city, the study suggests.

Stodola, who had not yet seen a copy of the study, said a deal could be struck, but it would be difficult because War Memorial is a state facility and the tax would be primarily upheld by Little Rock residents.

"There was nothing in there that really surprised me, that we didn't really expect," Webb said of the study, adding that discussion of the proposed solutions was still a work in progress.

A Section on 03/17/2018

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The state Parks and Tourism Department asked for the study on the future of the 70-year-old War Memorial Stadium as the end o... + Enlarge

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Suggested changes for War Memorial. + Enlarge

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Annual War Memorial events. + Enlarge

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