A second chance

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 646 views 

This time, says Jerry Morgan of the Jonesboro Advertising and Promotion Commission, it is going to happen. It is the construction of a multi-sports complex in Jonesboro, the largest city in Northeast Arkansas and the largest city in the area without such a facility.

Morgan was a leader of Team Jonesboro, which in 2019 proposed a 1% city sales tax increase with half the proceeds dedicated to safety improvements — primarily police and fire department needs — and the other half for quality of life improvements including construction of an aquatics center, bike trails, a children’s museum, more parks and an amphitheater. The tax would have sunsetted after 12 years.

However, voters rejected the measure by a 51%-49% margin in a Sept. 10, 2019, special election. An opposition group calling itself Citizens Taxed Enough said it supported a sales tax increase to benefit the police and fire departments but didn’t support additional tax money for amenities.

Scott McDaniel, chairman of Team Jonesboro, said after the vote the city still needs the amenities. Morgan said he heard from a number of organizations and parents of youths who participated in sports that they wanted to develop a way to build the facilities needed to compete with other towns, many considerably smaller than Jonesboro, so the city could attract sports tournaments and other visitors here instead of losing so many of our people to traveling out of town.

When he has those discussions, often mentioned are sports facilities in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Benton, which host tournaments and meets, Morgan said.

The city in 1973 established the Advertising and Promotion Commission, which funds projects designed to attract visitors to the city who will come to attend events, stay in local hotels and patronize restaurants. The idea, of course, is to attract visitors who will bring their families and their wallets to town and generate revenue for local businesses as well as tax dollars to support the facilities.

The 3% hotel tax in 2021 raised about $800,000. Commission funding has helped fund improvements to Joe Mack Campbell Park and Southside Softball Park, Morgan said. The largest project in which the A&P Commission has participated, he noted, was the construction of the Red Wolf Convention Center at the Embassy Suites hotel located on a former track and field facility on the eastern edge of the Arkansas State University campus.

In late 2021, the city council approved the A&P Commission’s requests to institute a 2% prepared food tax, also called a “hamburger tax,” and an increase in the hotel occupancy tax from 3% to 4%. Some hoteliers asked the commission to seek the hotel tax increase, Morgan said in recent remarks to a Jonesboro civic club.

Some restaurateurs questioned the timing of the imposition of the prepared food tax and some residents opposed the tax on grounds of an uncertain national economy. Alderman Bobby Long opposed both the Team Jonesboro proposal in 2019 and the prepared food tax. Long was quoted as saying everyone has a different vision of what they think the tax will fund, setting some up disappointment over unmet expectations. Alderman L.J. Bryant, however, addressed the timing question by asking rhetorically, “If not now, when?”

The commission recently hired a consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study, help with the development of the plans and cost estimates for a multisports facility, and to assist in the selection of a site for the complex. The site should range between 15 and 40 acres, Morgan said. The study is being performed by Eastern Sports Management, a Virginia firm involved in the redevelopment of the former Mid South Fairgrounds in Memphis and was involved in the development of the Cape Girardeau Sportsplex.

Morgan said after the planning is complete, the A&P Commission will ask the city to float a bond issue backed by the prepared food tax. Construction could start in the spring of 2023 and be completed in 2024, he said.

Morgan said Conway is developing a $14 million multi-sports complex paid for by its A&P money. West Memphis is planning a similar facility, he said.

In seeking taxpayers’ input about what a Jonesboro complex should include, Morgan said “a consistent theme we hear is we need a nice aquatics center with courts” that can accommodate basketball and volleyball to fulfill the demand. A family who travels to a weekend youth sports tournament will spend an estimated $700 to $1,000 or more in travel costs, accommodations and food, Morgan noted.

Supporters of the Jonesboro sports complex want to gain the home-court advantage in the traditional sense of the term as well as being on the receiving end rather than the remitting end of the gasoline, food and hotel expenditures families incur while their children participate in sports. Youths will have more opportunities to participate when the new facility is up and running.

That is important, Morgan said, as Jonesboro competes for new business and industry and also strives to keep its young adults living and working in their hometown. He said many families select a city or region that offer the amenities they want and then look for a job in that preferred location.

Looks like this time, Jonesboro is preparing to take the plunge.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. The opinions expressed are those of the author.