Ben Geren aquatic park not a sure thing

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 113 views 

Even though the Sebastian County Quorum Court has voted to approve funding for the new Ben Geren Aquatic Center, the project is now teetering on the edge of collapse as a second vote on the project approaches Feb. 19.

The second vote, along with a third vote, are required of the court since it failed to produce nine votes in favor of appropriating funds for construction of the new center.

Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge, R-District 6, said he was unsure whether he would repeat his Jan. 15 vote in favor of the project. If he changes his vote, the project would not receive county support.

"When we had the first vote, we had not seen the revised drawings or anything different that was presented to us from what was in the 2010 feasibility study and the plan," Aldridge said.

Aldridge, whose district includes Ben Geren Park, said other issues were causing him to question the future of the project, as well.

"The plan that has been presented is an increase of $600,000 in cost and the park's features are greatly reduced," he said.

One example of a cut in features was a reduction in size of the facility's "lazy river," which Aldridge said originally consisted of two loops and a water slide that would empty into the river.

"In the current plan, about 45% of the length has been reduced and it doesn't have the water slide access," he explained.

The $8 million project, which if approved will be jointly funded by both the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County, has already been approved by Fort Smith citizens, who voted to pass a 1-cent sales tax to repay bonds that will be used to pay for the project.

Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack reminded quorum court members that Fort Smith voters passed the tax by a 2-to-1 margin in order to fund the water park.

Gosack also said if the court did not vote to finalize the project, the county would be in violation of the interlocal agreement signed between the county and the city.

"We have an agreement with the county that they'll fund the project," he said. "We were relying on the county's promise."

Even with the looming prospect that the project may never become a reality, there is nothing Gosack or the city of Fort Smith can do to recoup an estimated $350,000 it has already spent on the project.

According to the interlocal agreement, which was signed by Sebastian County Judge David Hudson and Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders on Feb. 16, 2012, there are no stated penalties should either side decide to void the contract.

"The taxpayers would have spent that and have nothing to show for it," Gosack said.

Should the project dissolve, the city will still be on the hook for repaying bonds, he said.

"We can't spend the proceeds on anything else," Gosack said. "We'd take the proceeds and repay the bonds. (Money already spent on the project) would be stranded costs."

Hudson said he did not expect a failure for the county to fund the aquatic center.

"I don't anticipate that is going to happen. We have a majority of '’yes' votes on this and I think we'll move forward," he said. "In the event that something like that happens, we'll evaluate the circumstances."

For anyone seeking to know how Aldridge will vote before the Feb. 19 quorum court meeting, he said they will just have to wait and see.

"I'm going to reserve my final decision until I get more input from the public," Aldridge said. "I could go either way at this point."

This is not the first time the aquatics park process has been in doubt. The plan was in danger in early 2012 when the quorum court voted for a revision to the agreement between the city and county.

However, in February 2012 questions about annexation language were resolved and the quorum court voted 9-4 to put the item on the ballot for voter approval. Quorum Court members Shawn Looper, Phil Hicks, Tony Crockett, and Johnny Hobbs voted against.

The city vote followed with only Director George Catsavis dissenting in a final tally of 5-1.