The Friday Wire: Water park surprises and the female libido

by The City Wire staff ( 3 views 

Water park surprises, $20 million in jail money, Mike Huckabee’s thoughts about the female libido, and the financial impact of a “Battle at the Fort” are part of the Jan. 24 Friday Wire for the Fort Smith region.

• Jail money
Talk about your tough sell. Crawford County Judge John Hall and County Sheriff Ron Brown have the unenviable task of convincing county voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to build a new $20 million jail.

There is no doubt the county has a problem with the existing facility and some sort of fix is necessary. But, if passed, the half-cent bump in the sales tax would make the county's two largest cities, Alma and Van Buren, some of the most heavily taxed communities (in terms of sales tax) in the nation, with a sales tax rate of 10% each.

It will be the fourth time the county has sought a tax to fix the jail system. Judge Hall is hoping the fourth time is the charm. Hall and Brown may need less of a charm and more of a miracle.

• Recovery (finally) for Arkansas’ real estate market 
It’s been more than six years since the bubble burst on Arkansas’ real estate market, but figures from Arkansas’ four largest metro areas suggest the industry found its legs again in 2013.

The number of homes sold in Arkansas’ four largest metro areas totaled 20,644 during 2013, the first time since 2007 that the tally topped 20,000 and the value of the homes sold in the four markets topped $3 billion. The gains were healthy in all four markets, according to The City Wire’s Arkansas Home Sales Report. During 2013, the number of homes sold in central Arkansas are up 10.44%, up 12.89% in the Jonesboro area, up 17.98% in Northwest Arkansas, and up 7.36% in the Fort Smith area.

The healthy pace of sales may be tough to maintain in 2014 with interest rates expected to rise in 2014 and ongoing concerns about the stability of the U.S. economy. And even if the pace continues, home values may plateau, especially if interest rates rise throughout the year.

Following are a few stories posted this week on The City Wire that we hope you didn’t miss. But in case you missed it …

• Consultant’s ‘extremely high’ water park cost concern withheld
E-mails tell the tale of an attempt to keep information about cost estimates for the Ben Geren Aquatics Center from city and county officials voting on budgets and amenities tied to the contentious aquatics facility being planned and jointly funded by the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County.

• The agri report
Agriculture is still king in Arkansas despite being the home of the world’s largest retailer, a robust trucking industry and a quickly evolving start-up sector.

• Volleyball money
More events held in the Fort Smith area like the upcoming “Battle at the Fort” volleyball tournament may be needed to improve the area hospitality industry and boost Fort Smith and Van Buren hospitality tax collections.

• $1.3 million: The amount in sales RSVP Event Rentals expects to do in sales during its first year in business. The company was formed by the owners for the now-shuttered Phoenix Expo Center following the transition of the site to an office for Health Management Associates (HMA).

• 50%: Percentage of Arkansas respondents in a recent Talk Business-Hendrix College poll who say Arkansas should provide no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship. 24% said gay couples should be allowed to form a civil union, but not legally marry. 21.5% said gay couples should be allowed to legally marry in Arkansas.

• $500 million: Arkansas Farm Bureau estimate of cattle production in the state during 2013.

• Mike Huckabee and the female body
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on Thursday charged that Democrats are conflating women’s rights with access to birth control. Democrats, Huckabee said, believe women are “helpless” — that they “cannot control their libido or reproductive system without the help of the government."

• Wal-Mart and the NLRB challenge
A challenge by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to Wal-Mart Stores Inc's treatment of striking workers is likely to become a critical symbol of labor unions' attempts to organize the many non-union workplaces in the United States in the face of stiff resistance from management.

• Thoughts from Arkansas CEOs
If Arkansas businesses were cars, most have been in the “shop” for months now. Well, it’s starting to look like many of them will be taking to the streets the first half of 2014.

"The need is out there and it's really sad that they have to attempt to survive on $20 or $30 a month (in SNAP benefits). And it's unfair that they can be deducted $8 because they got a $2 raise. To us, that's a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. It's terrible that they are eating cat food and dog food for protein."
– Julie Tann, food coordinator and assistant director of The Hope Center in Van Buren, discussing the impacts that cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have had on clients of her food pantry

"Had I known he wrote that in an e-mail, I would have asked him how he plans on saving $3 or $4 million. But we didn't have that information at that joint meeting."
– Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper during a Sebastian County Quorum Court meeting, the same day The City Wire reported that Fort Smith officials intentionally withheld cost estimates from a consultant, in which he claimed the Ben Geren Aquatics Center could be built for $6 million to $8 million instead of the current budget of $10.9 million

“Other issues that sometimes get a good deal of air time, such as health care, lag dramatically behind economics. The centrality of the economy and jobs as the key issue crosses all demographic and political subsets of Arkansans. The key test for candidates in this political environment is offering a vision of an economic future for the state that resonates with voters.”
–Dr. Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College, about a Talk Business-Hendrix College poll that suggested 55% of Arkansans believe economy/jobs is the number one issue during the 2014 election cycle