Public not happy with aquatics park changes

story and photos by Ryan Saylor

Citizens who came to a joint meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors and Sebastian County Quorum Court expressed anger and frustration over changes to the Ben Geren Aquatic Center meant to keep the project within an $8 million price tag previously agreed upon between the city and county.

During a portion of the meeting set aside for public comment, six Ramsey Junior High freshman came forward to express disappointment regarding the redesign.

“We like the rush of the water and the feeling of the bubbles and quite frankly, Creekmore (Park’s pool) is too small for all the teens,” said Shelby Barton, a freshman at the school. “The original plan for the aquatic center would provide more room for more fun things.”

Ramsey English teacher Michele Walker echoed those sentiments, presenting a petition signed by 445 students that asked the quorum court and the board to reconsider changes to the project.

“I’m an expert on teenagers. I know what they want. I know what they like,” Walker said. “I was afraid when you showed those plans right there, they would not like them. I was right.”

The raucous crowd of nearly 100 people cheered loudly as more than 10 different members of the public addressed the joint meeting, demanding the city and county build the project presented in conceptual drawings during a campaign to pass a sales tax of a quarter-cent to pay back bonds issued for the project instead of the design presented on Tuesday.

Much of the complaints from students and adults revolved around the removal of the diving area at the pool.

Andy Smith with Larkin Aquatics, the designer of the project, detailed for citizens that the exclusion of a diving board and deep-water pool area would save nearly $200,000 and keep the project within the $8 million budget.

Smith also said the design presented to citizens Tuesday night had removed a second “ring” associated with the lazy river, or nearly 350 feet of lazy river.

Cost savings associated with the lazy river change ranged between $1,500 and $3,000 per foot, Smith added.

With the public outcry, members of the court and the board looked for ways to increase funding for the project in order to bring back some features that had been taken away.

While the city expressed interest in providing the amenities citizens wanted, City Administrator Ray Gosack said it could not expend any additional funds for the project.

“The difficulty for the city is that when we went to the voters with the sales tax bonds for the aquatics center project, we had to identify the amount of funding for the project and the sources of that funding for the voters,” Gosack said. “They made the decision to use sales tax bonds … the source of funding identified with the voters was $4 million.”

Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said it could be possible for the county to pick up some of the additional costs through an amendment to the interlocal agreement signed by both governments in Feb. 2012. The amended agreement would require the city to take on more of the operating expenses of the aquatic center until it could repay the county’s expenses.

Hudson proposed the county increasing its share of the project by $760,000 to fund the addition of a diving area and additional feet to lazy river.

The funds, Hudson said, would take $260,000 from the 2013 capital sales tax account that has not yet been earmarked for other projects, $400,000 from the 2014 capital sales tax — nearly half of the capital sales tax projected for that year — and $100,000 not expended on the tornado shelter at Ben Geren Park. Hudson said the leftover funds from the tornado shelter were available due to cost-cutting measures taken during construction.

No action was taken by either body at Tuesday’s meeting.

Hudson said the quorum court would discuss amendments to the project, including spending the additional funds and amending the interlocal agreement, at their regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 19.

After the court’s approval, the interlocal agreement would be amended to reflect the city’s new obligations. Design changes would also be made to the aquatic center after the Feb. 19 meeting and presented again to both bodies for approval.