Fayetteville Cuts Deal To Buy Mount Kessler Land
Preservation Promoted On Former SouthPass Site
Posted: February 7, 2014 at 5 a.m.
FAYETTEVILLE — City officials have negotiated a $3 million deal to buy more than 300 acres of woodland on Mount Kessler next to a planned regional park.
If aldermen approve the purchase Feb. 18, it would cap a decade-long effort to preserve the land, which features about 6 miles of hiking and mountain bike trails, groves of more than 200-year-old oak trees and views of southwest Fayetteville.
Mayor Lioneld Jordan’s administration intends to spend $1.5 million in general fund reserve that will be matched by $1.5 million from the Walton Family Foundation.
A group of Mount Kessler advocates, led by Frank Sharp, have said buying the land will promote outdoor recreation, environmental protection, educational opportunities and draw economic development.
According to a trail log kept by Sharp, whose homestead lies next to the land, about 20 percent of the 3,800 people who visited Mount Kessler the past year came from outside the city. Thirty percent had a University of Arkansas affiliation, Sharp said.
Jordan sees the purchase as a way of expanding the regional park, where construction is expected to begin later this year. The park won’t just be a place for ballgames and barbecues anymore, Jordan said. Residents will be able to go on wilderness walks and bird-watching trips, too. And buying land next to the regional park will allow for several street and trail connections.
“Now we’ll have a complete park — the sports end of it on one end and what I call passive recreation, where you can hike and bike, on the other,” Jordan said. “We didn’t seem to have the funding to do that before, but it was something I always wanted to do.”
“This is something that will be this city’s legacy,” he said. “It’s something that will be preserved forever.”
Chambers Bank, based in Danville, owns the land. The city’s reserve has grown to $12.7 million, said Paul Becker, city finance director. About $5.7 million must be kept on hand as 60 days of operating expenses.
Aldermen must decide to accept the contribution from the philanthropic organization run by the family of Sam and Helen Walton. The Walton Family Foundation has assets totaling about $2 billion.
As a condition for the grant, the city will be required to spend an additional $100,000 to build a publicly accessible trailhead on the property. City officials will have to close on the land by mid-April, and they must agree to maintain and operate all current and future trails.
Kevin Thornton, senior communication officer for the foundation, said the grant fits with one the foundation’s goals: providing access to high-quality education, the arts and natural amenities.
Parks and trails help companies recruit top talent to the region, Thornton said. He envisioned Mount Kessler as a southern anchor of the Razorback Regional Greenway, which the foundation also helped fund. The north end of the 36-mile trail system will be anchored by the Slaughter Pen trails in Bentonville, Thornton said.
City officials plan to cover a $300,000 pledge from the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association with their $1.6 million commitment. Bob Caulk, chairman of the Natural Heritage Association’s board, said the group plans to raise the money over three years. The association is the same group that gave nearly $500,000 to the city to help buy Mount Sequoyah Woods property and Brooks-Hummel Nature Preserve behind Evelyn Hills Shopping Center.
Steve Schneider, vice president of Ozark Off Road Cyclists, said members of the nonprofit organization may be involved with maintaining and extending trails they built on Mount Kessler.
“We’re excited,” Schneider said. “There’s going to be some really good partnerships down the road.”
The 376 acres are part of a failed development called SouthPass dating to 2004.
Chambers made good on developers’ promise to deed the city 200 acres for a regional park in 2010. The bank also agreed to honor a $1 million commitment to the city as development occurs. Don Marr, Jordan’s chief of staff, said Thursday that $1 million commitment could go away if property that remains bank-owned is rezoned.
Hunter Haynes, who has served as a consultant on the SouthPass property for Chambers Bank for several years, said Thursday the deal with the city could help Chambers find a buyer for the 200 acres the bank still owns.
Haynes said commercial buildings would still be ideal along Cato Springs Road with residential dwellings in the interior of the site.
“We’re excited about the future,” he said. “That’s why (Chambers) agreed to this sale. They believe that in the future it benefits not just the remaining property, but that whole area.”
About 328 acres would be part of the sale agreement. Another 48 would be donated to the city and count as parkland dedication for future development.
The $3 million purchase is about $9,100 per acre. By comparison, members of the University of Arkansas board last month agreed to pay about $2.6 million for 51 acres south of Cato Springs Road and east of Interstate 540 where intramural fields are planned. That works out to about $51,000 per acre.
“This is going to be a bargain for the city,” Sharp said.
Fayetteville aldermen must approve spending reserve money before the transaction is complete.
Both Ward 1 City Council members, who represent south Fayetteville, said Thursday they’re on board.
“I feel like it’s alright to use reserves for something like this, because it’s a one-time expenditure,” Alderwoman Adella Gray said. “If the property’s gone, we can never get it back.”
Alderwoman Sarah Marsh called the proposal “the chance of a lifetime.”
“To have such an amazing asset put in the public trust — we can’t pass up this opportunity,” Marsh said. “I’m so proud of our mayor and staff for putting this together.”