Residents got a look at plans for the new Ben Geren Aquatic Center Monday night (Feb. 4) at the Sebastian County Courthouse.
A group of more than 30 residents attended the meeting, where conceptual designs were on display and county leaders, along with Fort Smith leaders, sought citizen input on the design.
"We got public input early on and now we're looking for critiques, a little bit of tweaking," said Channon Toland, parks administrator for Sebastian County.
Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said the project, which is budgeted to cost $8 million, had been in the works for several years.
He said that many in the public were just now seeing the designs for the first time for one simple reason.
"Nothing moves fast with projects like this," Hudson said, adding that strategic planning for the aquatic center began as early as 2008.
Toland said two different plans were developed for the aquatic center during the planning phase — one costing $4 million and another costing $8 million.
In order to provide citizens with a larger aquatic center and better facilities provided in the $8 million plan, Hudson said the county approached the city of Fort Smith in hopes that they could come to terms on an interlocal agreement between the two governments to each pay half the cost of the facility's construction and operating and maintenance.
"Over the years, the city and county have had a number of interlocal agreements to serve all residents," Hudson said. "When we join hands, we all win."
Toland said once the agreement was in place and city voters had approved a bond and sales tax plan to pay for its part of construction, designers got to work on the renderings displayed Monday night, which included deck sprays, tumbling buckets, a tiny tots play area, a water walk, climbing wall, four water slides and a lazy river.
The design of some of the on-site facilities, providing office space for staff instead of additional play areas for children, caused Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge to become visibly upset.
"If we're taking fun away from the kids for offices, cut (the offices) now," he said. "A conference room? Come on guys. Let's get serious about taxpayer's money."
Aldridge, whose district includes Ben Geren Park, said in order for the quorum court to approve funding for the aquatic center, the designs would need to continue to be specific to what was originally proposed in early meetings with the city.
"If the project has shrunk in size significantly, that makes it harder to approve," he said.
In order for any project to get off the ground, the city and county are also looking at the cost of operations.
Hudson said the county had estimated the cost of operating the facility to be nearly $800,000 per year, while the facility was estimated to only bring in revenue of about $700,000 during its first year of operations. That means the city and county would have to cough up $50,000 each to cover the loss.
Mike Alsup, parks and recreation director for the city of Fort Smith, said the center was never intended to be a money-making proposition.
"It was always assumed that it would not break even," he said.
To cover continued maintenance, Alsup said the city would use sales tax revenue to pay its share.
"We have a quarter-cent sales and use tax (that can help fund operations)," Alsup said.
Sebastian County would be able to cover the loss from the county's general budget in the short-term, according to Hudson.
"It will move closer to cost as the years move on," he said. "The objective is to operate as close to even as possible."
The estimated losses the center may post have at least one Fort Smith resident who attended the meeting worried.
H. Buffington of Fort Smith said the cost of the project caused him great concern.
"There are valid questions up front," he said. "I actually changed my flight to tomorrow morning so I could be here tonight."
He said he feels that expected losses would eventually be passed on to the citizens of Fort Smith and Sebastian County through higher taxes.
"There's a lot of unanswered expenses," he said. "As a taxpayer, that's why I came here tonight."
To finalize construction of the project using money in reserve, Hudson said the quorum court would vote on the project during its regularly scheduled meeting Feb. 19.
The court had previously voted 7-6 to approve construction. Since the vote won without nine votes in favor of the project, Hudson said the court must approve the project again at the Feb. 19 meeting and if it still does not pass with nine affirmative votes, a final vote on the aquatic center will be held in March.
Toland said if approved, the plan is to open the aquatic center on Memorial Day 2014.