story by Ryan Saylor
A project that once looked to be delayed until 2018 will likely have life breathed into it again on Friday (Jan. 10) should the Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Commission move forward with a recommendation to restore the city's portion of funding for the River Valley Sports Complex at Chaffee Crossing.
The sports project, valued at about $3 million, had been pushed back so the city could tap into the $1.6 million it had promised the sports complex in order to pay for an expanded Ben Geren Aquatics Center. The aquatics center, which will now cost $10.9 million, had to have funds from somewhere within the city's park and recreation department's five year capitol improvement plan in order to build a larger park, with the county and city contributing $1.5 million each to the larger facility on top of $8 million already committed to the project.
At the time of the vote, City Administrator Ray Gosack said the project would be pushed back four years in order to tap into the sports complex funding for the aquatics center.
"It would be used for the aquatics center and then we would have to get re-appropriated for the ball field project later on."
But the city was under a legal obligation to fund the sports complex due to an ordinance passed by the Fort Smith Board of Directors in June 2012, which set aside funding for the project each month from June 2013 until June 2014.
With the action expected by the Parks Commission on Friday (its original Wednesday meeting was postponed due to inclement weather), Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman said other projects would be shuffled around to ensure the aquatics center and the sports complex are built according to their original timelines.
Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb, who is spearheading the sports complex project along with Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, said his understanding of the new capitol improvement schedule commits all the city's funding by the end of the this year.
"What they did is they let us keep the money that's already collected, then the $265,000 they need to collect this year," he said. "We only need another $265,000 in 2014 to get our commitment (from the city) and that's why you see the $1 million in 2014 for the water park is because they're going to choose not to take our money."
Dingman detailed where the money for the aquatics center would come from now that the city has upheld its original obligation to the sports complex.
"I think the tennis court project is going to be pushed pack. That is resurfacing and addressing lighting issues at Creekmore and surfacing at Tilles Park. That was going to be done in 2014, but that's been pushed to 2015," he said. "The Riverfront Drive improvements – that's the 51 acre development for soccer fields. The $750,000 originally for 2014 and then additional dollars later on. That (is now) not scheduled until 2015)."
Those two projects alone account for $1 million of the $1.5 million the city needed for the aquatics center. Other delays to bring the total up to the $1.5 million include sidelining the neighborhood park project in the vicinity of Texas Road, among other projects.
Parks Director Mike Alsup said with the reshuffling, there will be no additional funds available for other projects, explaining that the capitol improvement budget is spent up to the last penny.
"Previously, there was some room to breath. Now the schedule is completely tight. No room to breath," he said. "At next week's (Parks and Recreation Commission meeting), there will be a request for a ball field at Martin Luther King park. Because the plan is so tight now, something will have to be sacrificed to fund that."
Alsup went so far as to say there was not "room for contingency now."
But he said while some projects have been shuffled around, citizens should still be proud of the projects that will be completed in the next year or more.
"(This plan) keeps the funding for the (downtown) splash pad and the River West Trail that we already had in the works that are jointly funded through others helping us out," he said. "It moved a few other things back a year, but it kept funding for other things that were already in motion."
Webb said with funding again in place, the River Valley Sports Complex should open by Spring 2015.