The Sebastian County Quorum Court voted Monday night (Dec. 9) to amend an interlocal agreement with the city of Fort Smith that would see both governments adding about $800,000 combined in funding for a planned aquatics parks. But even though the Court approved the additional funding, there remains very little that is certain about the project.
The Court was presented with revised conceptual plans at a joint meeting with the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Monday after it was revealed Nov. 12 that the project presented to the public through conceptual drawings would cost $11 million to build, which would be $3 million more than the original estimate of $8 million.
At Monday's meeting, Andy Smith of Larkin Aquatics presented the Board with a design that would make a number of changes to the aquatics center, which would reduce the cost of the project to $8.8 million. The changes included:
• Removal of the diving well, therefore reducing the number of swimming pools from three to two;
• Reducing the length of the lazy river;
• Combining the concessions area with the bathhouse under one roof instead of two separate buildings; and
• Converting one water slide from tube-accessible to simply a body slide.
The vote to amend the interlocal agreement and provide additional funding for the project showed a split Quorum Court, with Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge casting the deciding vote (seven votes for, six votes again) to approve additional funding. But Aldridge's vote for the project did not come without his publicly ridiculing Smith for multiple changes in both cost and capacity estimates since February.
"Tonight, still, you're changing the numbers and the interpretations. You are not giving us correct and factual information on a timely basis for us to sell the voters. We are responsible to the voters and their money. And we are not getting good information and I resent it."
Aldridge added that he did not want a park missing the amenities the public made clear in February that it wanted, saying that he wanted a water park “we'll be proud of."
Justice of the Peace Tony Crockett also spoke up, adding that "people were adamant in wanting (the bigger design)."
Fort Smith Director Pam Weber said students from Ramsey Junior High School who spoke in favor of a dive well and other amenities at the February joint meeting of the governments would be disappointed should the final design be missing those features.
"I heard loud and clear from those students. When they came, there were a lot of them that spoke. What they asked for is completely gone and what we promised them is completely gone. This is basically a water park that is for toddlers and adults and we've left out that middle group. And we really need that middle group to have entertainment in this area. So I'm very concerned about that because I heard loud and clear that they wanted that diving area and it's gone."
Aldridge said while he was the deciding Quorum Court vote on amending the interlocal agreement to provide an additional $800,000 for the project, he would still like to see the city and county find some way to fund the project with all the desired amenities, even if it means collectively spending $11 million to see it come to pass.
"We've got to keep taking baby steps forward to get us what we want for the people," he said, adding that he would like for both bodies to explore funding methods, such as the county issuing bonds against future countywide sales tax revenues.
As for the city of Fort Smith, City Parks Director Mike Alsup said not only is the city able to fund its additional portion of the $800,000 should the Board of Directors approve the amended interlocal agreement at its regular Dec. 17 meeting, but the Parks Commission may decide to use some of the city's eighth-cent sales tax for parks capital improvements for the aquatics center.
"We would have to delay some other projects in order to do that," he said.
The vote of the Quorum Court was seven in favor and six opposed to the additional funding for the aquatics center, which now requires two additional readings of the ordinance with additional votes. Should the city and county not be able to secure the additional funding to build an $11 million facility, Aldridge said he is not above changing his vote by third reading in January 2014 and further introducing a resolution to dissolve the interlocal agreement with the city, which would essentially kill the entire project.
"If (the additional funding does not come through), I'll pull the plug on the project. The city can do what they want to do with their part (of the funding already set aside for a water park)."
City Administrator Ray Gosack said any push to dissolve the interlocal agreement would require approval from not only the Quorum Court, but also from the Board of Directors. The idea of both governments going their separate ways caught Gosack off guard following the vote by the Quorum Court to approve the additional funds.
"Yeah, it does because the county approached the city about this project two and a half years ago. So it does catch me somewhat off guard that the county might consider abandoning the project. The feedback I've received from the community is they want this aquatic center and they want it sooner rather than later."
The Fort Smith Parks Commission will meet at noon Wednesday at the Creekmore Community Center to discuss capital improvements funding for the Parks Department. The Board of Directors will meet in regular session Dec. 17 to vote on the amended interlocal agreement.