story by Ryan Saylor
Ben Geren Aquatics Center has taken another step closer to reality with news that the final plans for the joint city-county water park have gone out to bid.
According to Sebastian County Judge David Hudson, bids will be opened April 10 at 2 p.m. at the county courthouse in Fort Smith.
"The construction manager and architect are generating interest among potential bidders," he wrote in a memo to the Quorum Court dated Friday (March 21). "There will be more than 30 bid packages for the project. This number of bid packages will give smaller contractors greater opportunity to be part of the project."
With plans now largely complete and in the bidding process, conceptual drawings have shifted from what was a dream to a more exact view of a finished facility. Hudson said the water park will include four slides, as has been promised in the years leading up to this point, as well as a children's play structure.
"Two of the slides will empty into a plunge pool, and two of the slides will have run-outs at the ends," he explained. "The children's play structure will be bid with a deductive alternate in the event bids are higher than we can afford. The alternative play structure would include two levels instead of three."
With the water park now out to bid, Sebastian County and Fort Smith leaders are shifting attention to how the facility will be run.
"Our next tasks will focus on updating the operating/business plan, creating a name for the aquatics center, and considering whether a management company should be used to operate the facility," wrote City Administrator Ray Gosack in an e-mail the city's Board of Directors on Friday. "All of these will be reviewed with the city board and quorum court before being finalized."
In a telephone call Monday (March 24), Hudson said the review of the facility's business plan will focus on a January 2010 feasibility study that was completed during a preliminary discussion about whether a water park would be a good fit for the county.
The study showed a combined facility jointly-owned and managed by the county and city would have expenditures of $822,772 while revenues would only be $709,300, resulting in a loss of $113,472 each year. The figures are based on admission rates of $5 for children and adults 5 years and older, while children under 4 years old would be charged $2.
Hudson said Monday that while the rates were included in the feasibility study, they are not current policy and subject to the will of the county and city's governing bodies.
"As we approach these decisions, the past studies were there to help us determine feasibility," he said. "But there have been no decisions made about rates because now it's 2014. We need to get the projected operating cost updated based on 2014 market criteria and evaluate with full knowledge of all the competing facilities out there. Back in 2010 (when the feasibility study was authored), there wasn't even a facility in Rogers. They may have been talking about it. … That wasn't even in operation. So now we have to take into account where we are in 2014 from 2010. We're talking about four years later."
Another item that will be under review will be salaries for lifeguards and others employed at the facility. The feasibility study listed lifeguard salaries at a rate of $8.50 per hour, while head lifeguards would earn $9.50 per hour and aquatics program instructors would be paid $10 per hour.
"It was my understanding that they used local salaries primary based on Creekmore (Pool's salaries) and local rates based on the region."
Aaron Lee, an administrative secretary at the city's parks and recreation department, said salaries at Creekmore Pool this year are only $7.25 per hour for first-year lifeguards, $7.50 for second-year and $7.75 per hour for third-year. The rate stays the same for aquatics program instructors, while head lifeguards earn between $8 and $8.50 per hour, depending on tenure, she added.
Hudson said the other outstanding variable is whether both governments will decide to forgo self-management and instead contract management of the facility to an outside group, specifically mentioning Tustin, Calif.-based AmusementAquatic Management Group. It was AMG's president and CEO, Kent LeMasters, who flew to Fort Smith in January to convince the city and county legislative bodies to approve funding for a wave pool at the facility, though he did not reveal concerns he had regarding "extremely high" estimates for construction of the water park. E-mails obtained by The City Wire reveal that Gosack requested Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Director to instruct LeMasters to not discuss his concerns at a Jan. 6 joint meeting of both the Board and Quorum Court.
"It's a very significant pending matter before both governmental entities — how are we going to staff it? What are the fees going to be? What are the revenues going to be? None of us have operated a water park. It may be good to have an outside party (like AMG) to be our partner. That's what I was excited about when Mr. LeMasters was here."
After bids are opened April 10, Gosack told the Board it would need to hold a special meeting to approve bid awards.
"A special meeting could be held in conjunction with the April 22 study session. We will wait until after the bids are opened on April 10 before asking for this special meeting. This will give us time to assure that the bids are affordable and that the low bidders are qualified."
Should bids and subsequent construction go on as planned, a Memorial Day 2015 grand opening is planned. Hudson said he is excited to see the project inch closer to next year's planned opening, though he admits frustration with the process to this point.
"This has frankly been one of the most difficult projects I've worked on in my career," he said Monday. "It's been confusing to me as to why it has been. It will be such a great asset to our area for those families that will use it."