Consultant’s ‘extremely high’ water park cost concern withheld

story by Ryan Saylor

E-mails tell the tale of an attempt to keep information about cost estimates for the Ben Geren Aquatics Center from city and county officials voting on budgets and amenities tied to the contentious aquatics facility being planned and jointly funded by the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County.

The e-mails — obtained by The City Wire through a Freedom of Information Act request — revolve around Kent Lemasters, president and CEO of AmusementAquatic Management Group. Lemasters spoke to a Jan. 6 joint meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors and Sebastian County Quorum Court.

At the meeting, Lemasters — who has been involved in the amusement and hospitality sectors in various capacities since 1976, including 15 years as vice president of Raging Waters amusement park in San Dimas, Calif. (Los Angeles County) —spoke about how the inclusion of a wave pool would be the primary draw at the aquatics facility.

Not mentioned during Lemasters' presentation were his concerns about the budget approved by both governmental bodies at separate meetings on Dec. 17, 2013, could be too high. Both bodies voted to increase the budget of the project from $8 million to $10.9 million, an increase of nearly $3 million.

"Congratulations on getting your budget increased," Lemasters wrote to Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup in a Dec. 23, 2013, e-mail. "However, I remain concerned that your estimates to construct the waterpark are extremely high. I believe that for your new $10.9 budget, we can (build) an even bigger waterpark. Or, we can build the current planned waterpark with a wave pool at somewhere between $6M and $8M."

When reached for comment by telephone on Jan. 17, Lemasters would not explain his reason for questioning the $10.9 million budget approved by the city and county, adding that, "I have to be careful what I say because, you know, it's not our park at this point. It's not a park we're managing." 

Lemasters added: "I think the $6 to $8 million was before, I believe, the wave pool, I think." Once reminded of the e-mail he wrote to Alsup, Lemasters refused to answer further questions.

"Well, I really. … I will need to talk to Mike (Alsup) before I can really answer any questions for you because, like I say, I'm not connected to the city as an employee or a contractor or anything. So I feel uncomfortable in speaking to anything other than the plan."

Lemasters, whose trip from California to Fort Smith earlier in January was funded by Fort Smith taxpayers to the tune of about $1,200, said he would not discuss the e-mail any further "until I've talked to (Mike Alsup) and made sure they are OK discussing it."

Further attempts to reach Lemasters by telephone on Friday and Monday (Jan. 20) were unsuccessful.

Contacted later Friday, Alsup said Lemasters was free to discuss the issue with the media, though he cast doubt on Lemasters' cost estimate.

"You have to look at what he's basing that on and your local conditions — rates of pay, what concrete and things cost in different areas, you'd have to look at that," he said, later adding that Lemasters was not given enough information to make an informed estimate of what the water park would cost to construct.

"He's looked at a concept, he's not looked at details. Our construction manager is looking at exactly how many yards of concrete we need for the decks and the buildings and things like that. The view…he hasn't looked at anything in detail like that. So you know, that would be different."

Alsup also pointed to the type of construction used in some of Lemasters' other parks — namely Castaway Cove, a municipal water park in Wichita Falls, Texas — which he said includes metal buildings built to lower standards than other facilities, including the planned Ben Geren Aquatics Center.

In discussing the e-mail, Alsup was asked directly if Lemasters was told to keep quiet about his views of the cost estimates when speaking before the joint meeting.

"He knew that the purpose of that meeting was to approve the elements — the wave pool, the water slides, and so on. So he knew that that was the purpose of the meeting."

Asked again, Alsup again avoided giving a direct “yes or no” answer.

"He was told that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the elements and to approve the elements. The budget had already been set. That's why his comments did that."

Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, Alsup's direct supervisor, said Lemasters' estimate for construction of the water park was never relayed to the city's Board of Directors.

"No. The only thing that was relayed to the Board based on his opinions necessarily was what he said out loud to them at the joint (meeting)," Dingman explained, adding that he personally did not instruct Lemasters to keep quiet about cost estimates.

"I do know we didn't ask him for his opinion on cost, we asked him for his opinion on the various amenities," he said.

Asked whether his answer implied Lemasters was instructed to keep quiet, Dingman referred to an e-mail included as part of The City Wire's FOIA request.

"I know that Ray (Gosack, Fort Smith's city administrator), I think, through an e-mail that you probably saw reminded all of the staff that Kent was there to talk about his opinions on the amenities, not necessarily costs."

The e-mail written by Gosack to Alsup — which was copied to Dingman, Sebastian County Judge David Hudson, Assistant County Administrator Scott Stubblefield and County Parks and Recreation Director Channon Toland — made clear that Alsup was to keep Lemasters from discussing his views of the cost estimates. Gosack noted in the e-mail: "Thanks for clarifying.  We’ll also want to be certain that Kent stays away from cost estimates at Monday night’s meeting – the architect and CM will be discussing those.  We can discuss estimates with Kent when we meet with him on Tuesday morning. "

Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper was at the joint meeting on Jan. 6 and overheard a brief conversation between Justice of the Peace Tony Crockett and Lemasters following the meeting, in which Crockett asked Lemasters whether he could help the city and county reduce construction costs.

"He said, 'Yes. I can save you money on the construction of this project.' That wasn't really discussed in the (public) comments, but that was really the only comment (about cost) that I heard like that."

Looper said Lemasters’ thoughts on the costs should have been forwarded to the two governmental bodies, especially as they continue to look for ways to save money.

"He says we can build the $10.9 (million) for $6 (million) to $8 (million)? …Then someone needs to answer for that. I mean, why would we not want to do that? That doesn't make sense."

As for whether the bodies can go back and again change the funding model for the project, possibly reducing the allocated funding to a lower amount, Looper said it was something he would look into, possibly bringing the issue before the Quorum Court.

"I don't know that," he said. "Another thing that I don't know is our contracts with Larkin and the construction manager, I don't know how they would be effected, either. But I wonder if he could be brought in as, if he could save us $1 million, if he could be brought in as a consultant to consult with whoever we have on the project. I don't know the answer to those things, I'm just asking that question."

Regardless of what happens moving forward, Looper said he wants both governments to better communicate what is happening away from the spotlight of public meetings.

"This is what always bothers me, is to get good information after the fact. I mean, that to me is a detriment to the whole project. I mean, we needed to flesh that out and at least he was there, we could have at least heard his comments on this. That would have helped the decision making. It could have saved us a lot of money, so why not get that out into the open? To me, there's no benefit in not letting the different bodies have that information. I don't understand why it's so hard to get information."

Vice Mayor Kevin Settle confirmed he had not previously been presented with the cost estimates Lemasters provided Alsup, which made their way up all the way to the city's senior administration officials.

"This is the first I've heard about that. I don't know anything about that at all. The only things I know about are the estimates that came from our construction manager (Flintco) and Larkin Aquatics. That's the only estimates I've ever heard about," he said, adding that it was tough to respond to the e-mail without knowing what Lemasters' figures were based on.

"I didn't come across asking him about price or anything else," Settle said.

Asked whether seeking Lemasters' input on cost estimates would have been a useful exercise for the Board and Quorum Court, Settle said, "If you're asking (as) Monday Morning quarterback three weeks later, then yes."