In case you were wondering, we checked and are confident that the concepts and planning and budgeting for this on-again, off-again water park at Ben Geren Regional Park were not managed by Kathleen Sebelius or the person in charge of security at the Nelson Mandela funeral.
What we do know is that this back and forth on the funding or lack thereof for what is supposed to be a water park is as tiresome as it is troubling. And, by way of comparison, unnecessary. The powers-that-be in Clarksville and Rogers – two smaller Arkansas communities within a one-hour drive of Fort Smith – were able to build a slightly smaller and slightly larger, respectively, water park with little to no drama or delay. And they did so with little to no deviation from what was presented to and approved by voters.
The governments of Sebastian County and Fort Smith partnered to build what was originally an $8 million facility that would handle about 1,100 “bathers.” In a March 2012 special election, Fort Smith voters approved a sales tax plan that included water park funding. The water park plan portion of the tax question was approved by 64% of the about 14.5% of registered voters who turned out.
Here we are nine-months later and the amenities for the park and the cost of the park are about as certain as your 2015 healthcare coverage plans and costs. Not only do these two governments appear unable to build a water park, I’m not sure they could Build-A-Bear. The cost of this $8 million park is now at least $11 million, an almost 38% premium over the original estimate and for a park that will accommodate about 200 fewer bathers.
The root of the problem can be traced back to the inability or unwillingness of Sebastian County Judge David Hudson to realistically assess the project cost prior to the city of Fort Smith agreeing to take the issue to voters. Essentially, Judge Hudson had $4 million for his half of the project and the true costs didn’t matter, even when asked by city officials if he was sure $8 million would do the job. Unfortunately, the Fort Smith Board of Directors and the Sebastian County Quorum Court took his word for it, and the legislative bodies are now paying for that trust by trying to get answers to questions that should have been asked before March 2012. Ready, shoot, aim.
This historical summation does nothing to address the predicament we now face of a promised water park that exceeds the promised budget. The question now is, “How do we pull this cart-driven horse out of the ditch?”
The answer is, “You shoot the horse and burn the cart.” OK, that’s not really the answer because, well, ummm, the PETA folks would raise hell over shooting a horse and there do not appear to be any good answers. Instead, there are several options that, depending on your perspective, have varying degrees of suck.
One option is that both parties walk away from the deal. This option is unlikely, if for no other reason than the city of Fort Smith has spent around $200,000 for financing costs, and the Board has a quasi-mandate from the voters to build something that resembles a water park – and a park that includes much more than a trampoline, above-ground pool and a slip-n-slide.
Another option is to build what you can build for $8 million (or $8.8 million or $9.2 million or whatever the latest number may be) and hope the voters are happy enough with it that they don’t hold it against you the next time a sales tax question hits the ballot. Just as an observation, the scaled-down version of the water park we all dove into before getting more info now excludes an area deep enough in which to dive.
Yet another possibility is that both sides agree to keep the project alive, but pull back and reassess options. Some folks say that is not an option because park completion was promised by Memorial Day 2015.
A rumored option is that Hudson, pressured to keep the plug from being pulled on his wet dream, may find around $1.5 million from budgets for future county capital projects to meet half of the estimated $3 million needed to raise the $11 million now needed to build what was originally an $8 million park. Still with me? The thinking here is that if Hudson finds the money, the Fort Smith Board of Directors will approve a match. The extra money would likely come from the about $25 million the city estimates it will collect from the voter-approved one-eighth cent sales tax revenue dedicated to city parks. However, most of that annual revenue for the next three years is tied up in building a soccer facility along the Riverfront, and softball fields at Chaffee Crossing and Ben Geren. Peter, meet Paul.
This rumored option has the advantage of not requiring the matter to go back before Fort Smith voters. Also, the rumored option has the disadvantage of spending more on a project than approved by Fort Smith voters.
Also, we might note we don’t have info on what this revised water park plan will require in annual financial support once complete. What’s the cost for maintenance and operations for a facility open five – maybe six – full months out of the year?
The only thing approximating certainty with our situation is that regardless of the option or outcome, we’re likely to get soaked on this deal.