Fort Smith, Sebastian County officials move on $10.9 million water park

story by Ryan Saylor

No longer are the Fort Smith Board of Directors and the Sebastian County Quorum Court wrangling over whether or not to add an additional $800,000 to the $8 million budget for the Ben Geren Aquatics Center.

Instead, both bodies approved an amended interlocal agreement in separate meetings Tuesday (Dec. 17), setting the project budget at $10.9 million, which would allow the project to include many of the amenities Fort Smith voters thought they would see in a project when they voted to approve a sales tax to fund the city's half of the construction in May 2012.

But spending the additional funds did not come without a fight at the city Board meeting, which took place an hour prior to the meeting of the Quorum Court.

In order to pay for the city's additional $1.5 million now obligated to the budget, the money will be taken from the Parks and Recreation Department's Five Year Capital Improvement Plan. But in order to take from CIP, projects originally slated for funding during fiscal years 2014 and 2015 have been shuffled around, including the River Valley Sports Complex, a project spearheaded by Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb and State Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith.

An ordinance passed by the Board on June 5, 2012, requires that money be set aside for the project from the sales tax in different amounts at different times. From June 2013 to December 2013, the ordinance spells out $750,000 in funding that would have been set aside for the project, money that City Administrator Ray Gosack said would now be used for the aquatics center instead.

"It would be used for the aquatics center and then we would have to get re-appropriated for the ball field project later on," he said, adding that the Board would have to amend the ordinance at a later date in order for the funding to officially be taken away. "It would have to come separately (from the vote tonight)."

Webb addressed the Board, asking that it look at other ways to draw funding from the CIP in order to build the aquatics center without having to take from funds already obligated to the sports complex, to be built at Chaffee Crossing.

"I know the position you're put in. I've been there myself. I hope there's a way to figure out (how) to get around this,” Webb said in addressing the Board.

Even though the sports complex, which is proposed to now not be built until 2018, is being sidelined for the time being, Gosack said a previous agreement with the U.S. Army National Guard would still move forward. The Army, through a grant, would clear the land for the ballfields at Chaffee Crossing in Aug. 2014. After their work is complete, Gosack said the city would still spend about $350,000 already set aside for the project to "stabilize" the site and carve out drainage, preparing the site to sit for years until funding comes available to construct the ball fields.

Even though the sports complex was an issue raised by Webb, the Board looked at other factors in their decision to approve the additional funding.

Director Mike Lorenz presented the Board with polling done by his daughters, who attend Northside High School and Trinity Junior High, which showed water slides and a wave pool as an interest among more than 600 students he said were polled at both schools.

He said it was clear to him that in order to draw patrons to the facility, it would need to be built closer to the concept presented to the Board in March of this year, including a longer lazy river, slides and other amenities, adding that "we need to build something we can be proud of."

Director Keith Lau echoed those sentiments, adding that the city needed to "be the best or go home."

Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup said building the larger facility and possibly including a wave pool would be the primary driver of customer traffic, which would lead to a lower chance of both the city and county having to subsidize the facility's costs each year. He came to the conclusion after speaking to individuals at municipal water parks across the region.

"The likelihood to break even is greater with a wave pool being part of the project," he said, adding that the "wave pool is the draw."

He also said he had spoken with the project designers and had been assured that the wave pool could replace the diving well and still have the entire aquatics center project come in under the new $10.9 million budget.

The final vote for the $10.9 funding concept passed the Board on a 4-3 vote, with Directors Pam Weber, Philip Merry and George Catsavis voting against the project.

Both Merry and Weber expressed concern that not enough was known about the costs of the project, with the $10.9 million figure having just been made public on Friday (Dec. 13).

"We've seen so many numbers and we've relied on so many for numbers, but we still don't know if $10.9 million would cover the original plan or cover a wave pool. We don't know that," Merry said.

Weber went so far as to suggest the possibility of going back to the voters and asking for an extension of the current bonds in order to not sacrifice funding for the sports complex or any other facility. It was an idea that gained no traction.

"I want to remind all of you when we do this vote - we relied on numbers that did not come to fruition," she said. "And our Board is not in the business of micromanaging. But I wish this was one time I had stepped forward and micromanaged. Because going from $8.8 million to $11 million on the same plan has not left me with a good taste in my mouth or left me feeling comfortable with promises of future numbers."

Following the action of the Board, the Quorum Court approved the additional funding of their portion of the project, with Judge David Hudson explaining that short-term loans could be issued against future sales tax revenues the county will collect that is dedicated to parks capital improvements.

When asked by Justice of the Peace Linda Murry what the cost of such short-term financing would be, he suggested using a local financial institution to structure the loans with interest rates he did not expect being above 2%.

Justice of the Peace John Spradlin spoke out against the additional funding, explaining that designer Larkin Aquatics had already been off in their estimates by 24.6% from the original concept to the most recent cost estimate.

"We don't have a firm number. This is really scary and with revenues down…with revenues down and we can't get a firm number out of these guys. ... This is very dangerous here and I think if we're not careful…we're already stretched and revenues are down. The projections don't look good. We can't get a firm number. We're flying blind and now we're going to say, 'OK. Let's do this.'"

Not having the votes to defeat the cost increase, the amendment moved forward, with Justice of the Peace Danny Aldridge, a proponent of the aquatic center, declaring Tuesday as a great day for Fort Smith and Sebastian County.

"You've got governments working together to get the citizens what they want. We're serving them and using their tax dollars the best way we can. I think it will be great for everybody. I think it will be a boom for the economy."


And even though the city spent nearly 30 minutes discussing a possible wave pool, with Alsup declaring he was assured by the project designer that it could come in under budget, Hudson said he was unaware that estimates related to a wave pool were included in the project to replace the dive well.

"I don't know anything about that, so I can't comment on that. I know that Mike Alsup has talked to some other water park operators and that their recommendation to them is you're better served participant-wise, and connected to that cash flow-wise, with a wave pool than you would be with a dive well."

Following the meeting, Spradlin said he feared the increased funding and the county's plan to eventually take out loans at a later time against future sales tax revenues would put the county in a financial bind, resulting in tax increases to make up the deficits. And he placed the blame squarely on Aldridge's desire to see a larger park built.

"It's a sad day for taxpayers. And I blame Danny Aldridge."

Hudson and Gosack have said a joint meeting of both the city and county legislative bodies will be held in coming weeks to finalize the design of the project, though a firm date has not yet been set.

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Auatic Center

Although we voted for Kevin Settle and Ray Gosack water park. They sold us and bad one. Now the parks dept is going to suffer to the tune of 1.5 million. We never voted for the park funding to be stolen from them to fund the lie Kevin and Ray sold the public. The park funding was not meant for this. Not sure if everyone knows, but the parks also get to pay half of any shortfall Director Settle's Aquatic Center incurs. All this yet he has voted for the 6th straight year to cut the park funding. In fact every year he's been in office the park budget has gone down. Now he's reaching in the funding we finally we able to secure. I'd like the Directors especially Settle and our esteemed dept Ray Gosack to commit to STOP taking the parks money. I'd also kike them to call Ivy Owen and apologize for not following through on your commitment there. Finally write the citizens of Fort Smith an apology for stealing the parks money and for selling a Aquatic Center that was almost 25% under budget. Don't sell us an idea and then change is after we pay for it.

What a joke...

the Directors have become. This water park fiasco continues to be a small but clear example of the overall issues that will develop when you have people that cannot manage money and budgets in charge. Unofficial polls being done by teenagers, a Director that just figured out she is supposed to be paying attention to the budget and a City Administrator that drops the ball more often than not. Yeah! What a place to live. No, this nonsense may not cause people to leave but does it really attract people to come here? Just think, next year we have Rev. Hutchings running again. At least we will have someone that can pray for a balanced budget, even if he does not know how to accomplish one. Things are really looking up.

Its Ok Whatever

Wait till you see the screams from the people that use the Gosack/Hudson/Settle Water Park and they see the cost of admission to use their Water Park built with their tax dollars. If you remember the Lake Fort Smith Project that was in the hundreds of millions of tax dollars and even with all debt for the project retired, the citizens have seen 3 water rate increases and some of the highest water bills in the country. Not only are the people getting soaked with construction costs but are soaked again when they use the products that were bought with their tax dollars. Its only a matter of time before people realize that the projects have been wet with waste.

No apology necessary......

No sorry letters from those two clowns......they should just resign and go away.

Clown Count

Who are the Two Clowns you are talking about because my count is up to Four(4)? H-G-S-A, and lets not forget the newspaper editor that called a County JP a "red herring" for demanding answers on exact construction costs, operational costs, responsibilities, and accountability on the Water Park. Its outrageous that a person would be labeled as a "red herring" for asking the right questions and trying to protect the taxpayers from the waste, possible fraud, and lack of planning that seems to continually surface with this project.

Taxpayer Hero

County JP Spradlin is a hero of the taxpayers for asking all the right questions and being opposed to the terrible waste of taxpayer money on the Water Park. We all agree that the Water Park is good for the community but the 2 million dollars of possible waste needs some explaining by the County Judge and City Administrator and the people deserve to know in advance how much the cost of admission will be to use the park.