Trendsetter Cities - Rev. James Donald Rice Park
Honorable Mention - 2020 Wellness and Fitness
Reverend James Donald Rice Sr. lived and worked in the heart of Hot Springs’ Gateway Community, and from there he helped lead efforts to integrate the Hot Springs School District in 1968.Fast-forward just over 50 years, and although much fruit was bore from the seeds planted by Rev. Rice and those who followed, recent national events have highlighted the distance still remaining in the journey toward equity in terms of social justice, public health and law enforcement. Inspired by the legacy of Rev. Rice and, thus, named in his honor, the Reverend James Donald Rice Park (Rev. Rice Park) in Hot Springs aims to do more than a typical city facility; it aims to bring together the community and the police and instill health and wellbeing practices for the underserved.
Several departments at the City of Hot Springs, including the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, partnered with the Gateway Community Neighborhood Association to transform two formerly vacant lots in the largest African American National Historic District in Arkansas. The federal CDBG funding was requested for the park by the Gateway Community Neighborhood Association. Construction was primarily funded through the Housing and Urban Development CDBG program, with in-kind labor from the City Parks & Trails Department. All available resources were leveraged to provide the highest quality facility at minimum cost to the City.
In fact, the City forgave more than a dozen code enforcement liens against the property in order to acquire the lots from a local non-profit for fair market value to construct the pocket park. The nonprofit seller, Healthy Connections, had been gifted the land by a property owner. Healthy Connections had always envisioned the property as a recreational space, and they were agreeable to paying two other personal liens against the property that the City could not forgive during the closing. They did this out of the generosity of their hearts.
Health and wellness, and providing constructive options for at-risk kids, were the main drivers for this park. An aerial view of the Gateway Neighborhood shows it is an island – encompassed on all four sides by high-traffic roads – Malvern and Grand avenues and Spring and Reserve streets. Pedestrians are essentially cut off from nearby amenities like the Greenway Trail and the former Boys & Girls Club. In addition, 32.8% of households in that Census Block Group do not have access to a vehicle (American Community Survey Selected Social Characteristics, 2018).
Also, there is 51% home and business vacancy in the Gateway/Pleasant Street Neighborhood. The idea for the park was born when Habitat for Humanity built four new homes on Garden Street in 2016, bringing a total of 20 new children into this historic neighborhood. These youths needed a place they could walk to by themselves, or with a family member, to be outside and enjoy playing. Rev. Rice Park is the first and only recreational area for families and youth in the Gateway Neighborhood.
According to the Opportunity 360 report from enterprisecommunity.org for the census tract that includes the Gateway Neighborhood, the life expectancy for residents here is notably shorter than other populations. Residents do not have primary care or dental care clinics in their tract, nor do they have adequate mental health clinics nearby. Access to healthy foods is only available at the Farmers Market, but otherwise this tract is considered a food desert. A 2016 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study of health factors and outcomes found 31% adult obesity, 28% physical inactivity and 20% of residents noting poor or fair health in Garland County.
The residents in this area are younger, compared to citywide figures, and include representatives from Gen X, Gen Z, with the largest percentage being Millennials. Many live alone or with a spouse, or live with parents or other relatives. The food and service industry is the primary occupation for these residents, and a staggering 44% live below the poverty level, compared to 18% citywide. The median household income is $17,243, compared to $43,146 citywide. There is a 20% unemployment rate, compared to 7% citywide.
Only 27% are homeowners, with 43% of renters being cost-burdened in that they pay more than 30% of their income on housing. This means these families and individuals lack disposable income, and the children here are much less likely to have opportunities for entertainment and recreation. Therefore, children from this neighborhood must get their entertainment and recreation from public parks and family gatherings. The public housing assistance data is high for this tract because this area is where all three Housing Authority properties are located in the City, and two are within walking distance to Rev. Rice Park.
“Disconnected youth” are those who are neither in school or employed, and who may face barriers that limit access to resources and social support from their community. Disconnected youth account for 11.4% of this tract, compared to 1.3% citywide. These statistics explain why this neighborhood is home to RA Psychle, a community education and restoration organization that focuses on utilizing local partnerships to strengthen socio-economic stability in underserved yet resilient populations. The statistics also demonstrate clearly the need for Rev. Rice Park, and all the benefits it will bring to this neighborhood and its families and youth.
RA Psychle has already put Rev. Rice Park to use in multiple ways for the benefit of the youth in this area. They have not only used it for recreation on the basketball court, but also for nature education in such activities as tree and bug identification, as well as learning how storm water bioswales work. The organization also has appreciated the walk from the Webb Community Center to the park, wherein the leaders have incorporated history lessons that include who has lived in and built homes in the neighborhood, as well as what impact these individuals have had on the African American community.
Due to the proximity of the park to the adjacent Hot Springs Police Department, collaboration can be fostered among the police officers and the community. Hot Springs Police Department Chief Jason Stachey, at the time of the CDBG grant application, wrote in support of Rev. Rice Park that “it would allow a place where officers…can meet with residents and youth to continue to build positive relationships and increase communication…I am a very strong supporter of community policing and encourage our officers to get out of their patrol cars and go play basketball with our youth when they are not busy. This resource will allow them to do just that.”
Given that the two lots are narrow, a professional park designer was engaged to maximize the space based on recommendations from the neighborhood. Two City staff, who are American Institute Certified Planners, also examined the site and determined the proposed plan seamlessly infills with adjacent improvement, neighborhoods and services, and fulfills several goals and objectives of the City’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan. Rev. Rice Park serves 1,325 residents, including 670 low- to moderate-income households (66%), and is ADA accessible. The centerpiece of the park is the 80-foot by 50-foot full-length basketball court, which is partially shaded by a large southern hackberry tree. There is a swing set and water fountains, as well as benches and two covered picnic tables. The park is accented with a rod-iron fence, with entrances from both Pleasant and Shiloh streets. Adding to the existing trees, two willow oak trees were spaded in and Bermuda sod was added, along with a rain garden that features a bald cypress.
The creation of this public recreational park has complemented the extensive public and private quality of life improvements taking place in the area and has provided much needed recreational space aiding in the continued overall revitalization of this formerly distressed neighborhood. Furthermore, as the neighborhood children and families utilize this park, play on the basketball court with their police officers and community leaders, and simply commune together outdoors, we envision Rev. Rice Park being a slam dunk for the future of the Gateway Neighborhood and, equally, for our city as a whole. We know the potential outcomes would make this park’s namesake proud.