North Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department, North Little Rock, Ark.

1. What is your job?

I’m parks maintenance superintendent for the North Little Rock, Ark., Parks and Recreation Department. My responsibilities cover two broad areas: maintenance of all the grounds within our parks system and maintenance of the plumbing, carpentry and electrical segment of our facilities. With 1,950 acres spread across a total of 36 parks that require some form of maintenance, there’s always something to do.

2. Where are the facilities located within the park system, and how does that affect your management program?

At just under 1,800 acres, Burns Park is the third-largest municipally owned park in the U.S., and is the site of our 22-field soccer complex, five-field softball complex and our local high school’s two regulation-size baseball fields that sit side by side within a small stadium. It’s also the site of three 18-hole golf courses, a lake, fishing pond, playground areas, a dog park, 32 hard-surfaced tennis courts and an eight-court, indoor tennis complex.

The other park sites have a variety of facilities including sports fields and community swimming pools. Our athletic fields’ soil profiles vary by location, ranging from sandy loam to a rock mixed clay, and most are sitting on top of a clay base. That affects how well they perform with drainage and fertilization. The soccer complex fields were built using the sandy loam found in abundance with the proximity to the Arkansas River. It’s not an ideal sand texture for athletic fields. It’s too fine and packs too firmly, so the compaction rate is a little difficult to manage. All these fields were sprigged with Tifway 419 bermudagrass.

Because that soil was readily available, it also was used for the softball and the baseball complex. So, it’s a native soil, but was brought to the sites with an 8 to 12-inch depth installed over base material that ranges from a former dump site to broken concrete excavated during road reconstruction to a rock/shale mix.

Photos by John C. Jones.
The Burns Park soccer maintenance team with Parks Maintenance Superintendent Bret Prather.From left to right: Charles Winston, Bret Prather, Kenny Johnson, Chuck Brooks and Ben Elis.

3. How is your staff organized?

I have a total of 34 staff members. Our one non-grounds section has one person designated for each category of plumbing, carpentry and electrical, two vehicle and equipment mechanics, and a five-person janitorial crew. The remainder of the staff is divided into two different categories: athletic complexes and general grounds. One team of four is dedicated to the soccer complex. All the other crews work in teams of three, allocated by territory to a specific section of the city.

4. What was the highlight for your fields this year?

This year, we hosted the U.S. Youth Soccer national finals, drawing 56 teams from across the U.S. at four different age levels for both boys and girls. The event was televised on the FOX soccer channel, and ESPN taped some segments for later showing.

Trees surround the soccer fields within Burns Park.

5. What causes the greatest wear on your sports fields?

Heavy use and schedules that sometimes put play on our fields in less than ideal weather conditions, combined with our drainage and percolation and infiltration issues for water and nutrients generally cause the greatest wear on our fields.

6. What changes are planned for new field construction?

We’re currently breaking ground for a new seven-field baseball complex at Burns Park. It will cover close to 27 acres with two 150-foot fields, two at 200 feet, two at 250 feet and one at 300 feet. This will replace some older fields in the neighborhood parks, allowing us to consolidate play on upgraded facilities for multiple age levels at a single site.

We’ve excavated an adjacent hill to raise the elevation of a natural low area by approximately 8 feet. We’re specifying a 6-inch layer of donnafill (a local crushed rock aggregate) topped with an 8-inch layer of field-quality sand. That will give us a better infiltration and percolation rate, and a field surface 14 inches away from the compacted clay soil and shale rock base. That base will be shaped to move water to the perimeter without the use of subsurface piping.

Bret Prather, parks maintenance superintendent,with Bob Rhoads, director of parks andrecreation, city of North Little Rock, Ark., atthe foot of The Big Dam Bridge.

7. What effect did this year’s extreme weather conditions have on your fields?

Our soccer complex fields had been covered by 4 feet of flood water twice this year before the storms of Hurricane Gustav hit in mid-September.

Our first flood came in March as a result of heavy rains in the Arkansas River tributaries. When the waters receded, we had fish stuck in our soccer nets and brown silt sludge completely coating the fields. The bermudagrass was just beginning the transition phase from dormancy to spring green-up. The coating was so slick we couldn’t walk on it, and the fields so wet we couldn’t mow.

The first flood was coupled with a tornado that took down 40 large trees and damaged a number of others. Many of these trees were in our soccer complex. We did the major tree cleanup in March and were still doing branch cleanup work into early May.

The second flood came in April, again caused by heavy rains. When it receded, we had 1/8 inch caked layer of silt sludge on all the fields. We tried scratching it off a few fields, but we weren’t exactly sure what we’d be stirring up. We also needed to get them ready for our local tournament in May and didn’t have the equipment or personnel to manage both processes. So, we opted to treat that layer as topdressing and let the still abundant natural rainfall wash it into the soil profile and stimulate the grass to grow through any coating that remained.

We had to wash everything and change the nets. Luckily, the engineers that designed the complex built the restrooms and concession stands on mounds high enough to be above the 100-year flood plain. The highest waters were just 1.5 feet away from that predicted 100-year high.

8. How do you lay out the typical annual field maintenance program?

I work from our operational budget allocating maintenance procedures and materials according to needs, working to maintain consistent quality throughout the park system fields. Mowing schedules are adapted to turf growth. We schedule one to two aerifications per field per year using the deep shatter core tines to a depth of 6 to 8 inches to help relieve compaction and move water and fertilizer into the soil profile.

We plan a minimum of three fertilizer applications per year. Pest control follows standard IPM principles. We do apply preemergence weed control in both the spring and fall and generally make one or two spot applications of postemergence control as required. We monitor for disease activity and for insect outbreaks, with armyworms and fire ants the most likely to require control applications.

Heavy rains in the tributaries of the Arkansas River put all 22 fields of theBurns Park Soccer Complex under floodwaters twice this spring.
The Big Dam Bridge, North Little Rock, Ark., is the world’s longestpedestrian bridge.
Floodwaters from the Arkansas River covered the Burns Park Soccer Complex.

9. Did you have a mentor or special supporter?

I earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Mississippi State University, intending to go into counseling or teaching, but my dairy farm background and the success of my brother, Bart, in sports field management drew me to this profession. Dr. Mike Goatley was my first mentor. Then, armed with his teaching and that of Dr. Jeff Krans, Bart became my mentor and my sounding board for testing ideas.

10. What advice would you give those new to the sports field management profession?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t know the solution to a problem, go to those who specialize in that area for help. That’s what keeps us learning and growing and continually raising the standards for sports fields at every level of play.