story by Ryan Saylor
Construction of a new tournament softball facility at Chaffee Crossing will move forward later in 2014 after a series of votes by the Fort Smith Board of Directors Tuesday night (March 4).
Prior to voting to approve a contract, which awards $1.6 million to River Valley Sports Complex for construction and sale of the facility to the city of Fort Smith, there were many questions about how sure the non-profit lead by Sebastian County Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb and Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, would secure the additional funding needed to complete the project without having to come before the Board to ask for more money. The completed facility will have eight tournament-quality softball and baseball fields.
In order to secure the city against the potential of the project not being completed, Vice Mayor Kevin Settle proposed limiting the first payout to RVSC to only $100,000 in order to complete engineering and architectural work necessary so the National Guard could complete grading work at cost on land donated from the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority starting on Aug. 1. The land, which FCRA Executive Director Ivy Owen said was valued at $1.1 million, has already been deeded to the city.
Once the Board was satisfied with the work completed with the first $100,000, Settle said the rest of the funding set aside for the project from a quarter-cent sales tax could be approved so the project could move forward.
Settle said he felt the proposal, which was eventually voted down by a vote of 3-2-1 (with City Directors Philip Merry and Pam Weber voting against, City Director George Catsavis abstaining and City Director Keith Lau absent), would have provided Webb and Files to do additional work to make sure the project was ready for the city's investment.
"I want this project to continue, that's what I'm trying to do here," Settle said. "But at the same time, there's an incomplete project plan because we're not doing it (constructing the facility). We're relying on someone else (to do) it — an entity, a non-profit, a corporation — to do it. You've got to make sure that it's there. It's not us. It's somebody else. We don't need to come back at the end and say we missed this."
Settle referred to a defined project plan the city proposed, which Webb said he was not opposed to, which would lay out the scope of the project with cost details. It would also lay out clear expectations of what RSVC would need in firm commitments before the city would commit to funding its portion of the project.
Following the meeting, Webb said some of the items Settle was referring to as incomplete are actually just the difference between doing a project with solely public money and relying on donations from individuals and corporations. He said what may seem incomplete only appears so because a large company may not be comfortable divulging planned donations prior to the actual donation.
"We've had some verbal commitments that we didn't want to bring completely forward until we were sure the project was a go because it involves bringing some people's names out and we wanted to go solidify those and get it in writing. You know, we're going to make the Board happy."
With Settle's original plan of limiting the city's purse strings to the RVSC failing to secure enough votes for passage, he attempted to remove the original sale and subsequent lease of the facility by RVSC from the agenda and instead call a special meeting for next week. That move failed by a vote of 2-4.
The project, which in previous study sessions and Board meetings has been contentious because of cost estimate differences between RVSC and the city, was funded by a vote of 4-1-1, with Settle voting no and Catsavis abstaining.
Even with the Settle proposal failing, Webb said he would still try to meet Settle's performance standards and provide updates on donations as he is able to secure them in writing.
He also said questions about any sort of differences in cost estimates between RVSC and the city were unfounded based on RVSC's estimates being centered on actual costs versus the city's estimate, which he said included profit for whichever construction companies were involved in the project.
"I think that was the biggest issue that was short with the Board, was the way we presented things. We presented hard costs, what we could build things for. They ultimately, I believe, wanted to see the savings – show this inflated price for this and what we could get it for, and show that for the savings. Jake (Files) and I looked at that as a number that was we wouldn't use in our business. We looked at hard costs. What could we go build this for? Not including overhead, not including profit, because we are basically doing this as cheap as we can physically do it and get it done."
Even though he voted against moving forward with the lump sum payment to RVSC, it did not change Settle's view of what impact the project could have on the Fort Smith region. But he said he still questions whether Webb and Files can deliver on his requests for more information that would have been included in Settle's failed proposal.
"I think it is a good deal for the voters, but I feel like given what we passed tonight without the data, I think that we just, you know… If we get to that point where he says he'll give it to us in a couple of months and we get it, then we'll know. But if we don't get that data before we start the (National) Guard work, then that's going to be the question."