Van Buren city officials and Cass Job Corps representatives cut a ceremonial ribbon Friday morning to signify the start of a joint venture to clean up and restore Lee Creek Park for recreational day use.

Using the park as a vocational training site for its heavy equipment program, Cass Job Corps is clearing and leveling the property at no cost to the City of Van Buren, said Cynthia Kopack, director for the Cass Job Corps Civilian Conservation Center.

"This is a large project - but it gives our students an opportunity to do real world work," Kopack said.

Lee Creek Park is located along the Arkansas River on the western boundary of Van Buren. Because of a lack of money, the park has not been maintained since April 21, 1996, when it was struck by a tornado.

While city officials wanted to sign a lease agreement with the Army Corps to take over the park, it would have been pointless to do so until the city had the money to restore and maintain the park, said Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman.

Because of the 1 cent sales tax that was passed by voters in 2012 - with a portion of that going to parks - the city was able to set aside money specifically to put the park back into daily use, Freeman said.

Freeman signed a 25-year lease with the Army Corps to operate the park. It was Army Corps personnel that suggested Freeman contact Cass Job Corps about cooperating on the park clean up, he said.

Participating in the project is good for Cass Job Corps, Kopack said, for two main reasons: students are able to give back to the community, and the project is a long-term project that can be used to train both current and future students.

"It’s one thing to just practice your skills, it’s another thing to get to produce something - and that’s what they get to do here," Kopack said.

Job Corps is a U.S. Department of Labor education and vocational training program for young people ages 16-24. Students learn more than just job skills through Job Corps, they learn everything they need to be employable, Kopack said.

Students and their instructors from Job Corps in Cass, Ark., already have been working for about a month to clear brush and debris from the park.

Freeman is not sure how long the clean up will take - he estimated anywhere from eight months to more than a year - but said it is an important project, regardless.

"What folks need to realize, this has a long-term benefit not just for the community, but for these young men that are on this equipment," Freeman said.

Once Jobs Corps has completed its portion of the clean up, Van Buren officials will complete the park with elements such as picnic tables, Freeman said.

Freeman will meet with Kopack in Cass at a later date to discuss possible future joint projects, he said.