story by Ryan Saylor
The on again, off again River Valley Sports Complex project appears to be back on again following a study session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (Jan. 14). But how the project will be constructed may change following disagreements during Tuesday's study session about the use of engineering firms for the project.
The RVSC was one of the projects up in the air as the Board looked for ways to fund its half of an additional $3 million to be poured into the Ben Geren Aquatics Center. On Friday, the Fort Smith Parks Commission recommended approval of an updated five year capital improvement plan that would restore all funding to the RVSC, an amount totaling $1.6 million.
As part of the city's partnership with the group, headed by Sen. Jake Files of Fort Smith and Sebastian County Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb, the city has had to follow state law in regard to the procedure for hiring professional services such as engineers and architects.
At issue during Tuesday's meeting was the city's desire to use Mickle Wagner Coleman Engineers for a cost of $420,000 — the firm City Administrator Ray Gosack said is most qualified for the project — and RVSC's desire to use Brixey Engineers, which has proposed engineering costs of $40,323.50, for engineering of the project in order to have plans in place before the U.S. Army begins grading work on the site at Chaffee Crossing this summer.
According to Gosack, Brixey is not the most qualified because it has only been involved in one type of parks-related project, a trail, and has never engineered a sports facility whereas Mickle Wagner Coleman has. Files objected to Gosack's contention that Brixey was not qualified under state law to engineer the facility.
"His firm typically does high end hotels and to say someone's not qualified to do a concession stand with some restrooms and some storage area that does hotels on a daily basis is just flat false," he said.
Gosack noted that Arkansas § 19-11-801 "clearly requires us to select the firm considered the best qualified, not (simply) qualified." Files challenged Gosack's understanding of the law, explaining that while he was not attempting to be argumentative, he thought there was room for flexibility in how the law was interpreted and used.
"Ray, on the state law issues, when I called the attorneys at the Bureau (of Legislative Audit), they told me there was about four different ways you could look at, the city could look at, of getting the proposals back," adding that there were different ways to evaluate qualifications of various firms.
Unable to come to an agreement on how to move forward on the engineering proposals, Director Keith Lau referred to a phone call he had with Gosack in which Gosack had proposed using an alternate method for fulfilling the city's $1.6 million funding obligation to the RVSC and removing questions regarding interpretation of state law as it relates to the selection of firms providing professional services.
"Maybe this is the time to interject that other option that you and I talked about on the phone and maybe I think you talked with Kevin about it — about the potential of letting them, through performance bonds, do it and then waive the competitive bid process. Is that something we want to talk about?"
Gosack said the issuance of performance bonds would allow the RVSC to design, develop and build the facility to the city's specifications and then the city would purchase the facility, making payments on a timeline according to RVSC meeting goals and deadlines.
The proposal was the one rare point of agreement between much of the Board, with Webb adding that he approved the Board's moving forward in that manner.
"If we do go with a performance bond, I think it's a relief to Jake (Files) and I because then we can go do what we do best, which is get the thing done. We don't have to slow down asking someone to get it done."
Webb said the total cost of the project with donations of materials, in-kind donations of labor and the city's $1.6 million portion would likely be around $3 million total. An expected opening date for the facility is still expected to be Spring 2015.
The Board could vote on moving forward with the performance bond plan by its Feb. 11 regular meeting.