The city of Jonesboro has experienced impressive economic and population growth during the past decade, and quality of life has become a focus for civic leaders interested in maintaining the momentum. One idea in that effort is an aquatic center.
Mayor Harold Perrin told Talk Business & Politics he and other officials have visited aquatic centers around Arkansas and in other states. During those visits they’ve met with local representatives and discussed the best ways to build a facility, with several officials candid about missteps, he said.
City leaders want to incorporate the best features from the centers they’ve visited. For example, there is a system that uses a chlorine substitute. The estimated cost for a facility to meet the needs in Jonesboro falls around $20 million.
“The reason we arrived at that figure is that we reviewed all those and assessed what our residents wanted. That’s about where it would land,” Perrin said.
The city owns land near Joe Mack Campbell Park, and it would be a good site for the center, he said. The center would have to be part of a public-private partnership, because the city doesn’t have the money to build it by itself, Perrin said.
Volleyball courts, water features, a competition swimming pool, meeting rooms, concession stands and more ball fields would likely be included in the project. The Arkansas Department of Transportation is studying whether an off-ramp can be built to connect the potential center to Interstate 555.
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Several communities in Northeast Arkansas have built aquatic centers in recent years. Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce Tourism Director Kyle Christopher said the city’s aquatic center has had more than 200,000 visits since it opened in spring 2017.
The center, one of the largest in the state, cost about $25 million to build and was funded by a voter-approved 1% sales tax increase. Half of the tax has a sunset clause and the other half is permanent. The permanent tax is for the center’s maintenance and upkeep, Christopher said.
There was strong opposition to the tax before the vote, but the economic impact has been positive, and Christopher thinks if the vote were held again today, it would pass overwhelmingly.
“It was definitely a hot button issue at the time,” he said.
The Batesville facility includes a 15,000-square-foot area that houses an indoor splash pad, competition swimming pool with a retractable roof and a separate therapy pool. It has basketball and volleyball courts, a lazy river, outdoor water park features, a zip line, expanded baseball and softball fields and other attractions.
Batesville can now host multiple youth tournaments in different sports, and that equates to significant tourism dollars in the city, Christopher said. One volleyball tournament drew 72 players, 50 coaches, and their families and friends, he said. Each of those people eat in restaurants, and spend money on hotels and fuel. Before the center was built, those dollars were being spent in another city, he said.
Specific economic impact numbers haven’t been tabulated, but a study conducted before the facility was built estimated the facility would create 18 new jobs in the city and generate $354,029 in new labor income. It is estimated to have an annual $1.1 million overall economic output. For Batesville citizens, it goes beyond the dollars and cents generated, Christopher said.
“It’s about improving our citizens’ quality of life,” he said.
Voters in Pocahontas passed a 1-cent sales tax in 2014 to pay for their $10 million aquatic center. The sales tax also has a sunset clause, with half of the tax expiring once $7 million of the construction cost is paid, according to city information. It has a large indoor competition-quality pool, splash pad, outdoor pool and other features.
Jonesboro has more than one splash pad in the city already, so it’s unlikely to be part of any proposal, Perrin said. While touring that center, the mayor said he spoke at length with Pocahontas Mayor Kary Story about the entire process.
Fort Smith and Sebastian County partnered in 2014 to build an almost $12 million water park that includes three bodies of water, a 500-foot lazy river and four water slides for a total footprint of more than 20,000 square feet. It opened on Memorial Day in 2015. In Northwest Arkansas, Rogers opened an almost $13 million water park in early 2014.
An aquatic center may not be the city’s top priority, but it’s on a key projects list, Perrin said. Development of a center will be easier once the access ramp study is complete and artists’ renderings are finished.
“There’s really no question … this is something our community needs,” the mayor said. “But we want and need to do our due diligence before any decisions are made.”