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Fort Smith Parks Commission debates water park funding

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Even though uncertainty remains regarding the future of the Ben Geren Aquatics Center, the city of Fort Smith took another step forward Wednesday (Dec. 11) in order to provide additional funding for the project.

In a vote of 5-1, the Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Commission voted to recommend a change to the Parks and Recreation Department's Five Year Capital Improvement Program.

Included in 2014's Capital Improvement Plan, which is funded by an eighth-cent sales tax approved by voters last year, is $457,000 in funding for the Ben Geren Aquatics Center. That figure is the city's portion of the additional $800,000 outlined in an amended interlocal agreement to be voted on by the Board of Directors Tuesday night (Dec. 17).

The Sebastian County Quorum Court approved the measure Monday (Dec. 9) in a vote of 7-6, short of a supermajority required for the county to approve the amendment to the agreement. The Court will have to vote in favor of the amendment two more times in order to pass its measure.

The money was requested after estimates from the project's construction manager, Flintco, placed the project's design concepts at $11 million. Flintco, in coordination with designer Larkin Aquatics, has taken some amenities out of the water park's design in order to reduce cost estimate to $8.8 million, above the $8 million total the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County had projected.

During the meeting today, Parks Director Mike Alsup said the previous estimates were based on outdated figures, which is why the amended interlocal agreement would need to be passed, using money from the Capital Improvement Program.

Parks and Recreation Commission Chair Lorie Robertson questioned whether the amended interlocal agreement would actually be the end of the requests for more money for the park.

"Is it a pretty fair assessment that this is not going to be $8 million? That we're going to be asked for (not just) the $450,000, but probably more and asking us to take it out of our money? We're looking at these estimates right now and we will be asked to carve out that additional funding."

Parks Commissioner Bryan Merry was the lone no-vote on the commission, saying that he did not want to make any recommendation to the Board of Directors until he saw for sure that the county would pass its portion of the additional funding and further stating that the city should not pony up any additional funding should the Board ultimately vote to approve the amended interlocal agreement, which itself is still in question. Merry is the son of Fort Smith City Director Philip Merry Jr.

"We should not give them any more than the $457,000," he said. "We have enough things that we can move forward in our plan rather than giving another (large sum of money)."

Asked by Robertson how confident the city was in the figures, he showed confidence in the figure presented to the public on Monday.

"We're confident of the $8.8 million. The construction manager has looked over that plan. The plan that we currently have can be built with the $8.8 million."

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Merry made a motion to approve the amended Five Year Capital Improvement Plan without the additional funding for the Ben Geren Aquatic Center, though his motion failed.

Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman made clear to Merry that whether he liked it or not, the $8.8 million project would move forward should the Board approve the amended interlocal agreement.

"The Board of Directors will consider the amendment. The city (will be) committed to the $457,000, regardless of where it comes from."

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