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Commentary: Barton decision boggles the mind

There is a new No. 1 on the list — and it’s a lengthy one — of idiotic decisions by the Arkansas Activities Association.

On Thursday, the AAA’s 19-member board of directors voted to award the 2013 state championship basketball games to Barton Coliseum. The reaction around the state was “Yeah, Barton, funny joke … wait, really!?!”

That’s because Barton — located at the state fairground in Little Rock — is no longer seen as a basketball arena or concert venue. Not that the 63-year-old barn was ever built for such events. It’s a site for rodeos, gun shows and circuses.

The AAA itself said so in the April 2009 monthly bulletin in an article about the future of the state title games: “Barton Coliseum was a great starting point, but it was best-suited for rodeos rather than basketball.”

Prior to Thursday, the last time Barton made news was when the State Fair was looking at abandoning the fairgrounds for greener pastures. “The facilities do need to be repaired and updated. The coliseum restrooms need updating terribly,” State Fair general manager Ralph Shoptaw told the Arkansas News Bureau in January.

So how did an arena “best suited for rodeos rather than basketball” with restrooms that “need updating terribly” land the championships? Money. Pure and simple.

Summit Arena in Hot Springs has hosted the title games since 2007. But a conflict with the Sun Belt Tournament left the AAA looking for a 2013 site.

Jonesboro also bid on the 2013 games, but needed the first $70,000 of ticket sales to pay for use of Arkansas State’s Convocation Center. The Barton bid — backed by organizations in Little Rock and North Little Rock — threw down the gauntlet by guaranteeing $140,000 to the AAA and free hotel rooms for teams in the title games.

As soon as that six-digit guarantee was mentioned, the contract was as good as signed. Say what you will about the Arkansas Activities Association, you can’t say it ever leaves a single dime on the table.

It didn’t matter the arena is better suited for a wrecking ball than a basketball. It didn’t matter that crime in the boundary neighborhoods was cited as one of the reasons — along with decrepit buildings and inadequate parking — for moving the state fair to a new location.

The AAA only gave Barton a one-year deal, even though it bid for 2013-15. Some see it as a one-year stopgap before the event returns to Hot Springs. But as long as the Barton backers are writing a $140,000 check to the AAA each year, the title games are going to be played in a cow palace.

Terry Hartwick, president and CEO of North Little Rock’s Chamber of Commerce, told the Little Rock paper, “We’re going to bring memories back, back to Barton.”

Unfortunately for the high school kids who make it to the pinnacle of their sport, the memories won’t be happy ones.

•••

Scott Faldon is the sports editor of the Times Record of Fort Smith. E-mail him at sfaldon@swtimes.com.

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