In a morning news conference at the State Capitol, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday unveiled a proposal to make War Memorial Stadium a part of the state Department of Parks and Tourism in order to keep the aging, urban Little Rock arena self-sufficient.
“First of all, I want to thank Chairman Kevin Crass and the commission for the outstanding job they’ve done – and continue to do – for War Memorial Stadium and central Arkansas. From concerts and high school championships, to the ‘Miracle on Markham’, this venerable venue holds a special place with many Arkansans, especially our veterans, and has provided a lot of great memories along the way,” Hutchinson said.
He continued: “In order to continue that success while maintaining the stadium’s viability for future generations, I am proposing that War Memorial Stadium be moved under the direction of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.”
Under Hutchinson’s plan, the War Memorial Stadium Commission (WMSC) and its staff of six employees would cease to be a standalone entity and would move under the umbrella of APDT, led by director Kane Webb. In addition, through his discretionary funds, Hutchinson will fund a study by a nationally recognized stadium consultant to make recommendations on future needs of the stadium.
ADPT currently oversees Arkansas’ 52 State Parks and Museums, while managing 180 historic properties and conducting more than 42,000 programs and events annually. Hutchinson also said under ADPT, the Little Rock stadium will also have more access to state and federal grant dollars. The proposal, which has the full support of the War Memorial Stadium Commission (WMSC) and the state Parks and Tourism Commission, will be presented to the General Assembly during the 2017 legislative session, the governor said.
“It is a natural fit. It provides strength. It is an example of an efficiency that expands the vision, mission and strength of War Memorial Stadium,” he said. “I will be asking the legislature to make this transfer during the legislation session. I hope during the interim a partnership (between the Commission and ADPT) can be built.”
BUDGET CUTS ALSO AHEAD FOR WAR MEMORIAL
Over the past few weeks, Arkansas lawmakers have been holding daily budget hearings at the State Capitol ahead of the 90th General Assembly that begins in January. A week ago, Hutchinson proposed appropriations of $3,786,721 for fiscal year 2018 and $4,234,491 for fiscal year 2019 for the stadium commission, which has exclusive jurisdiction over the operations of the facility in midtown Little Rock.
Funding for the operation and upkeep of the stadium is from general revenues and cash proceeds that are generated by the use of the facility through rentals and profits from concession and novelty sales. The governor’s plan provides for the operations and maintenance of the stadium with general revenue funding of $895,171 for fiscal year 2018 and $895,294 for the following year, which would represent a budget cut of $447,467.
According to state budget officials, War Memorial Stadium began receiving state general funds for its fiscal operations nearly a decade ago. The stadium commission had a total budget of $3.45 million in fiscal year 2017, which began July 1, and state general revenue represented $889,085 of that total.
HUTCHINSON OFFERS SUPPORT FOR FUTURE RAZORBACK GAMES IN LR STADIUM
Following the governor’s remark, ADPT Director Kane Webb, War Memorial Executive Director Jerry Cohen and Brenda Scisson, a member of the stadium commission, all made comments in support of the governor’s proposal.
Webb called the plan exciting and said the War Memorial Stadium staff would fit seamlessly within the ADPT bureaucracy. “It’s in our wheelhouse. It is what we do in the hospitality and tourism business. We run facilities, we put on events, we serve the public and we know how to get the good word out about Arkansas and its many attractions,” Webb said.
Webb added that his agency’s staff will be able to market the stadium more effectively, but also downplayed criticism of stadium budget cuts in the future. He said the feasibility study would help give the ADPT staff other ideas to promote the stadium as a premier, central Arkansas event site.
“It always helps to get an objective, outside look at something – especially ‘this’ something – which is such an emotional and cultural touchstone for so many of us in Arkansas,” he said.
Scisson, whose father also served on the stadium commission, emotionally thanked the governor.
“This is wonderful news for a stadium that is in need,” said Scisson, who has served on the commission for 19 years. “We need help and today’s announcement is defining some help. I commend you governor for so quickly responding to a call for help.”
WMSC Chairman Kevin Crass, who has publicly criticized the governor’s budget cuts to the stadium, was absent from the State Capitol news conference; however, he did issue a statement offering support for the executive proposal.
“I am grateful to the Governor for his efforts to create a solution to the challenges War Memorial Stadium faces,” Crass said. “I look forward to working with Kane Webb and the Department of Parks and Tourism to determine ways we can work together to maintain and advance War Memorial Stadium. The people of Arkansas, especially the veterans and those who are memorialized, deserve nothing less.”
In response to questions from reporters concerning the future of Razorback football games at the stadium, Hutchinson and Webb said they hoped that the University of Arkansas would continue to hold games at the Little Rock venue beyond 2018 and well into the future.
“That’s a decision that the University of Arkansas has to make, and we will see what decision they make,” the governor said. “But, from my standpoint, I want the Razorbacks to continue playing in War Memorial Stadium. I would like to see that happen.”
LAWMAKERS SET TO REVIEW PLAN IN UPCOMING 2017 SESSION
Hutchinson also said that he has had some initial conversations with a few lawmakers that are supportive of his proposal, and hopes to reach out to more in the coming weeks ahead of the 2017 general session.
“We’ve talked to a number of (lawmakers) and I think there is good support for this, but I hope that support will grow,” he said.
In March, during the fiscal session of the 89th General Assembly, Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said Arkansas officials should “rein in” spending on higher education, spend money on libraries instead of the Arkansas Educational Television Network, and sell War Memorial Stadium.
The Northwest Arkansas lawmaker said the $849,500 given by the state to manage War Memorial each year should be used elsewhere in the state budget. Instead, the facility should be sold with the property taxes collected by Pulaski County to help fund the Little Rock School District.
Hester is also chair of the Joint Budget Committee’s Personnel Subcommittee, and chairs the Counties and Municipalities Subcommittee of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee. He also chairs the Senate’s Economic and Tax Policy Committee.
Arkansas Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, who did not attend the governor’s press conference, said he is going to look at the governor’s War Memorial proposal closely and discuss with members in the following days and weeks.
Hutchinson also said during the press conference that he is currently meeting with state Department of Finance and Administration officials to complete his budget plans for the 2017 session, which will likely include new tax cuts. That plan is expected to be unveiled next month.