Fayetteville voters soon to decide on tax reallocation

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 240 views 

Early voting begins Tuesday (Nov. 5) for the Nov. 12 Fayetteville bond election that doesn't add or stop a tax, but instead directs revenue toward three projects – one's a housekeeping matter but the other two are rather high profile.

Aside from the Arkansas Music Pavilion (called the AMP), moving during the winter from the Washington County Fairgrounds to Pinnacle Hills in Rogers, the Walton Arts Center plans to stay in Fayetteville, with a $20 million-plus renovation to the 22-year-old facility. The WAC wants roughly a third of that, $6.9 million, to come from Fayetteville's sales tax on hotel/motel/restaurant receipts. That is Question 2 on the November ballot.

Work would begin on undeveloped land in southwest Fayetteville that has been set aside to be a regional park with up to $3.5 million from the HMR sales tax to build soccer and baseball fields, along with related facilities. That's Question 3. (Link here for ballot examples.)

Question 1 would direct up to $1.5 million to complete bond payments that built the municipal convention hall, the Fayetteville Town Center.

Early voting will be conducted at the Washington County clerk’s office, 280 N. College Ave., in Fayetteville, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Nov. 5-8. It is cut off early by Veterans Day; county offices are closed Monday, Nov. 11.

"Question 1 would pay off the Town Center and adjacent garage," said Paul Becker, city finance and internal services director, adding that with this funding payments end in 2015. If voters reject it, the Town Center still would be paid off but would take longer.

A bond is a kind of loan, with votes such as these authorizing the borrowing and the repayment plan, Becker said. Fayetteville's HMR tax is 2%, with half going toward parks maintenance and expansion and the remainder administered by the Advertising and Promotion Commission.

All three of the Nov. 12 issues concern the A&P's 1% tax, Becker said, including funds for Fayetteville Regional Park.

The city seeks $3.5 million to go along with $4.5 million already set aside for Fayetteville Regional Park. Building out the sports fields is projected to cost $7 million. The only work so far is posting a sign indicating it is the future site of the 200-acre park, said Park Planning Superintendent Alison Jumper. The property is on Judge Cummings Road off Cato Springs Road, south and west of Interstate 540.

The city has a number of sports fields that will continue after the regional park is completed, Becker said. One of them, however, the 27-acre Lewis Soccer Complex, will close in 2018 because the lease on the land with the University of Arkansas is ending. A contract with Lose and Associates of Nashville, Tenn., is awaiting City Council approval on Nov. 5 to complete a master plan of the regional park and conduct a preliminary grading and drainage report, she said.

The sports fields and related facilities are all that's being sought, Becker said, with completion set for 2016.

"A full build-out would cost an estimated $27 million, and that is not fully planned out at this time,” he explained.

The Walton Arts Center's immediate plan centers on its lobby and the smaller Starr Theater (the main auditorium is Baum Walker Hall), but the motivation was immediate and twofold. First, the city is moving ahead with an approximate 300-space parking deck in the southeast corner of the block that contains the center, bordered by Dickson and Spring streets and West and School avenues.

Second, the center opened in April 1992. Along with 21 years of wear and tear, technical requirements of traveling productions have modernized and expanded, according to presentations made at recent public forums by WAC executives and architects. Besides electronic sophistication, theatrical shows take a lot of room. Sets, props, costumes and other equipment are transported in up to 10 trucks, said Chief Operating Officer Terri Trotter. The Starr Theater stages no productions during the largest shows as it is used for additional dressing areas and storage.

In the plan, new offices, backstage facilities and storage would be added at the rear of the center, abutting the new parking deck. The municipal deck will replace a building that houses some WAC offices.

The Starr Theater would be rotated 90 degrees and expanded from about 150 seats to up to 250 seats. As before, the stage and seating can be reconfigured as needed. This and other aspects of the project were detailed at the forums by Michael Tingley and Stephen Weeks, principals of Boora Architects of Portland, Ore.

The more dramatic part of the renovation will be to enlarge and rotate the lobby. Weeks told the 84 residents who appeared at the two public forums that a common complaint has been the lobby is too small and that if bigger it could host receptions separate from shows. The building was built on a diagonal, facing the Dickson-West corner. By adding a big triangle of floor space, the lobby would face Dickson directly.

Features would include a floor-to-roof glass wall facing West and a 40-foot service counter shared by ticketing, coat check, refreshments and related amenities. The balcony lobby would be opened up to view the lower level. Restrooms, especially the ladies', would get more stalls. Baum Walker would gain several spots to accommodate disabled patrons, among its 1,201-seat capacity, but otherwise would be largely unchanged in the renovation.

The lobby and backstage improvements would be built between mid-2014 and mid-2015 and the Starr Theater changes completed during the next 12 months.

What happened to the center's February 2012 plan to build a 2,000-seat auditorium in Bentonville? Trotter said Wednesday that while Northwest Arkansas is big enough to support that, it is five or 10 years down the road.

Besides Boora, other firms have been retained: Polk Stanley Wilcox of Little Rock and Fayetteville will be associate architects; Crafton Tull, which has a Rogers office, will handle civil engineering; Engineering Consultants of Little Rock, structural engineering; and Henderson Engineers, which has a Lowell office, will set mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection specifications. (Link here for an election FAQ from the Walton Arts Center.)

Becker said once Question 3 is approved by voters, the city will have "oversight and responsibility" in the use of the bond, which includes selecting contractors.

"These are city bonds. The city and the university own the property and the building," he said, adding the WAC in effect owns and operates the enterprise.

Besides the bond, the WAC will seek a third of the projected funds from individual contributions and the remaining third from foundations, according to its website.

Officials interviewed said they know of no organized opposition to the bond election or any of the three components voters face. Some points and questions have been raised in forums such as Facebook, but they are isolated.

Fayetteville's overall sales tax is 9.75% – 6.5% for the state, 1.25% for Washington County and 2% for the city. Patrons of city restaurants and motels therefore pay 11.75 percent.

If residents can neither approve the HMR tax nor reduce or end it this month, why vote? Becker had an answer.

"This is the opportunity for taxpayers to speak specifically on where this tax should go. We don't always get that opportunity,” he said. “The HMR tax is paid for in part by visitors when they get a hotel room or eat at a restaurant, so they are helping pay for these improvements. Second, it behooves us as a city to have visitors, to encourage them to come. It profits all sorts of related businesses in the city."