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Consultant’s ‘extremely high’ water park cost concern withheld

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

E-mails tell the tale of an attempt to keep information about cost estimates for the Ben Geren Aquatics Center from city and county officials voting on budgets and amenities tied to the contentious aquatics facility being planned and jointly funded by the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County.

The e-mails — obtained by The City Wire through a Freedom of Information Act request — revolve around Kent Lemasters, president and CEO of AmusementAquatic Management Group. Lemasters spoke to a Jan. 6 joint meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors and Sebastian County Quorum Court.

At the meeting, Lemasters — who has been involved in the amusement and hospitality sectors in various capacities since 1976, including 15 years as vice president of Raging Waters amusement park in San Dimas, Calif. (Los Angeles County) —spoke about how the inclusion of a wave pool would be the primary draw at the aquatics facility.

Not mentioned during Lemasters' presentation were his concerns about the budget approved by both governmental bodies at separate meetings on Dec. 17, 2013, could be too high. Both bodies voted to increase the budget of the project from $8 million to $10.9 million, an increase of nearly $3 million.

"Congratulations on getting your budget increased," Lemasters wrote to Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup in a Dec. 23, 2013, e-mail. "However, I remain concerned that your estimates to construct the waterpark are extremely high. I believe that for your new $10.9 budget, we can (build) an even bigger waterpark. Or, we can build the current planned waterpark with a wave pool at somewhere between $6M and $8M."

When reached for comment by telephone on Jan. 17, Lemasters would not explain his reason for questioning the $10.9 million budget approved by the city and county, adding that, "I have to be careful what I say because, you know, it's not our park at this point. It's not a park we're managing." 

Lemasters added: "I think the $6 to $8 million was before, I believe, the wave pool, I think." Once reminded of the e-mail he wrote to Alsup, Lemasters refused to answer further questions.

"Well, I really. ... I will need to talk to Mike (Alsup) before I can really answer any questions for you because, like I say, I'm not connected to the city as an employee or a contractor or anything. So I feel uncomfortable in speaking to anything other than the plan."

Lemasters, whose trip from California to Fort Smith earlier in January was funded by Fort Smith taxpayers to the tune of about $1,200, said he would not discuss the e-mail any further "until I've talked to (Mike Alsup) and made sure they are OK discussing it."

Further attempts to reach Lemasters by telephone on Friday and Monday (Jan. 20) were unsuccessful.

Contacted later Friday, Alsup said Lemasters was free to discuss the issue with the media, though he cast doubt on Lemasters' cost estimate.

"You have to look at what he's basing that on and your local conditions — rates of pay, what concrete and things cost in different areas, you'd have to look at that," he said, later adding that Lemasters was not given enough information to make an informed estimate of what the water park would cost to construct.

"He's looked at a concept, he's not looked at details. Our construction manager is looking at exactly how many yards of concrete we need for the decks and the buildings and things like that. The view…he hasn't looked at anything in detail like that. So you know, that would be different."

Alsup also pointed to the type of construction used in some of Lemasters' other parks — namely Castaway Cove, a municipal water park in Wichita Falls, Texas — which he said includes metal buildings built to lower standards than other facilities, including the planned Ben Geren Aquatics Center.

In discussing the e-mail, Alsup was asked directly if Lemasters was told to keep quiet about his views of the cost estimates when speaking before the joint meeting.

"He knew that the purpose of that meeting was to approve the elements — the wave pool, the water slides, and so on. So he knew that that was the purpose of the meeting."

Asked again, Alsup again avoided giving a direct “yes or no” answer.

"He was told that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the elements and to approve the elements. The budget had already been set. That's why his comments did that."

Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, Alsup's direct supervisor, said Lemasters' estimate for construction of the water park was never relayed to the city's Board of Directors.

"No. The only thing that was relayed to the Board based on his opinions necessarily was what he said out loud to them at the joint (meeting)," Dingman explained, adding that he personally did not instruct Lemasters to keep quiet about cost estimates.

"I do know we didn't ask him for his opinion on cost, we asked him for his opinion on the various amenities," he said.

Asked whether his answer implied Lemasters was instructed to keep quiet, Dingman referred to an e-mail included as part of The City Wire's FOIA request.

"I know that Ray (Gosack, Fort Smith's city administrator), I think, through an e-mail that you probably saw reminded all of the staff that Kent was there to talk about his opinions on the amenities, not necessarily costs."

The e-mail written by Gosack to Alsup — which was copied to Dingman, Sebastian County Judge David Hudson, Assistant County Administrator Scott Stubblefield and County Parks and Recreation Director Channon Toland — made clear that Alsup was to keep Lemasters from discussing his views of the cost estimates. Gosack noted in the e-mail: "Thanks for clarifying.  We’ll also want to be certain that Kent stays away from cost estimates at Monday night’s meeting – the architect and CM will be discussing those.  We can discuss estimates with Kent when we meet with him on Tuesday morning. "

Justice of the Peace Shawn Looper was at the joint meeting on Jan. 6 and overheard a brief conversation between Justice of the Peace Tony Crockett and Lemasters following the meeting, in which Crockett asked Lemasters whether he could help the city and county reduce construction costs.

"He said, 'Yes. I can save you money on the construction of this project.' That wasn't really discussed in the (public) comments, but that was really the only comment (about cost) that I heard like that."

Looper said Lemasters’ thoughts on the costs should have been forwarded to the two governmental bodies, especially as they continue to look for ways to save money.

"He says we can build the $10.9 (million) for $6 (million) to $8 (million)? …Then someone needs to answer for that. I mean, why would we not want to do that? That doesn't make sense."

As for whether the bodies can go back and again change the funding model for the project, possibly reducing the allocated funding to a lower amount, Looper said it was something he would look into, possibly bringing the issue before the Quorum Court.

"I don't know that," he said. "Another thing that I don't know is our contracts with Larkin and the construction manager, I don't know how they would be effected, either. But I wonder if he could be brought in as, if he could save us $1 million, if he could be brought in as a consultant to consult with whoever we have on the project. I don't know the answer to those things, I'm just asking that question."

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Regardless of what happens moving forward, Looper said he wants both governments to better communicate what is happening away from the spotlight of public meetings.

"This is what always bothers me, is to get good information after the fact. I mean, that to me is a detriment to the whole project. I mean, we needed to flesh that out and at least he was there, we could have at least heard his comments on this. That would have helped the decision making. It could have saved us a lot of money, so why not get that out into the open? To me, there's no benefit in not letting the different bodies have that information. I don't understand why it's so hard to get information."

Vice Mayor Kevin Settle confirmed he had not previously been presented with the cost estimates Lemasters provided Alsup, which made their way up all the way to the city's senior administration officials.

"This is the first I've heard about that. I don't know anything about that at all. The only things I know about are the estimates that came from our construction manager (Flintco) and Larkin Aquatics. That's the only estimates I've ever heard about," he said, adding that it was tough to respond to the e-mail without knowing what Lemasters' figures were based on.

"I didn't come across asking him about price or anything else," Settle said.

Asked whether seeking Lemasters' input on cost estimates would have been a useful exercise for the Board and Quorum Court, Settle said, "If you're asking (as) Monday Morning quarterback three weeks later, then yes."

Five Star Votes: 
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Comments

What a surprise!

Another issue with the water park, another time where our all-knowing elected officials failed to ask the right questions and the possibility of saving money eluded us yet again, another time where Gossack and Settle have egg on their face by pushing for and voting for something and not knowing all the facts. When will the citizens say enough?

Not surprised

Every Quorum Court Member that voted for this insane waste of taxpayer money should be voted out of office along with the County Judge and a thorough investigation should be launched into who did the arm bending to get this project approved. The same applies to the Mayor, City Administrator, and any BOD Member that failed to do their duty to protect the taxpayer purse. The writing was on wall when The City Wire exposed the huge bribes paid to officials by Flintco employees to get contract awards. Its almost a no brainer when a company over charges 2 million dollars on a project and then pays out 2 million dollars in bribes. Its beyond comprehension that any person that voted to use Flintco as the construction manager for this water park project was not aware of the investigation by the FBI and charges filed by the Attorney General.

Wow

This is excellent reporting. Going out and doing the heavy lifting, turning the stones over and digging for information. You are to be commended on an excellent article that will surely provoke much discussion at coming board meetings and study sessions. Thank you City Wire. I, and many others, would not have been aware of this series of questionable actions without your reporting.

Investigative Reporting

Congratulations City Wire for a job well done in bringing the true facts to the people of Fort Smith on this water Park Project that has been laced with controversy since the beginning. Our own local experienced water park contractor said that he could build the Water Park for 8 to 9 million dollars and include indoor pools for year around use but Judge Hudson, Ray Gosack, and Kevin Settle had to have Flintco of Tulsa who wanted about 2 million dollars more to build less Water Park for the taxpayers of Fort Smith. The City Wire also printed the information that Flintco had been investigated by the FBI and Flintco employees charged with paying almost 2 million dollars in bribes to get construction projects. It looks like Hudson, gosack, and Settle have a lot of "egg on their faces" because it points to pure incompetence or maybe something much more serious.

TCW personnel Bail fund. Shaking-down for Shaking Up.

We all should start saving up for legal expenses to help TCW personnel who will be harassed and frivolously detained or subpoenaed for shaking things up.

Whole Lot Of Shaking Going On

The Water Park fiasco has put the spotlight on the need for some serious shaking of the hierarchy in the land of oz.

well said anonYmous

"We serve no one by withholding information. We do not serve ourselves by refusing to investigate. Lack of information never assisted anyone. Accurate information allows us options' we can choose to take action based upon it or choose to ignore it, but not knowing does not assist us." ~ Mary Elizabeth: Croft

1.8 million / 90,000 = 5%

Wichita Falls, TX is two hours driving time from OKC or DFW. The waterpark is about half way between two major MSA region totaling approximately 1.8 million population. 90,000 people visit the waterpark in Wichita Falls, about 5% of the population. Is 5% sufficient enough to justify a taxpayer funded, overpriced, haphazardly conceptualized Fort Smith boondoggle. Our region is not as affluent as the areas between which Wichita Falls, TX is located. The projected ticket prices recommended by the latest consultant would be prohibitive for locals while insufficient population within our region will result in an operating loss greater than the original projection. The original loss adds-up to a buck and a half per year for every taxpayer.....a negligible 'waterpark tax' subsidy to maintain a $5 adult and $2 child ticket price. With the new grandiose pie in the sky proposal, the sky is the limit as there is no reasonable way to forecast the success or failure of the project. Kind of like the Convention Center debacle.

Huh?

The Wichita Falls MSA is 150,000, half the size of the Fort Smith MSA. If anything, 90,000 users in a 150,000 MSA is an argument for the waterpark. If anything, DFW and OKC are entertainment dollar competition drawing people from Wichita Falls, not visa versa.

It's the economy

Huh? Fort Smith economy is substandard to Wichita Falls. Wichita Falls has overflow from Dallas and Okie City. Fort Smith has what?.....You got it bassakwards Mr. Huh !!

HUH??? What???

It is you that has it backward. Wichita Falls is isolated 2 hours from either OKC or DFW.They are a 1 trick pony town relying almost solely on the Air Force Base. The city is not located on a major interstate highway with thru access. I-44 from OKC stops there but doesn’t carry through to DFW. Their population has been stagnate for several years now. The city itself makes up over 2/3s of the MSAs population, only a small percentage come from the surrounding areas. All of the income numbers are at or below the levels of the Fort Smith area. So they do not get this massive overflow from OKC and Dallas. Mr Huh has it right, It is you that has it wrong.

Get your facts straight

Disposable and per capita income are higher in Wichita Falls. I-540 dead ends in Fort Smith and carries through to nowhere. Wichita Falls, TX Per capita income 26,976 Median Disposable Income 37,329 http://www.americantowns.com/tx/wichitafalls/info --- Fort Smith, AR Per capita income 21,186 Median Disposable Income 31,772 http://www.americantowns.com/ar/fortsmith/info

You can get on 540 and almost go to Antarctica

so it ain't the kind of dead end where you come to a total stop like you're trying make it sound. Now to the important stuff. Just how does one obtain a lucrative contract in this area anyways? Get himself somehow situated on a committee? A steak dinner/golf at Southern Hills country club in Tulsa helps out tremendously perhaps? Where's the competitive bidding process and whenever possible maybe we should avoid telling the bidders how much there is to spend beforehand would you think? Right now as we await sealed bids to discover the actual cost on a new Water Park, is anyone else wondering..why in the world are they sealed?

NorthsideClyde, that is a good question!

NorthsideClyde, do you think, maybe connections will get you a lucrative contract? I do know that Brixey Engineers had the low bid of $40,000 for the Softball Sport Complex, but lost to the high bidder Mickle, who bid $420,000. But unfortunately, Brixey wasn't aware of some added architectural work the city was wanting in the bid, which makes me question, how clear does the city make the "Scope of Work" in the bidding process? But Brixey told me he wasn't aware of a riverfront sidewalk contract, which I think was won by a former Parks Commissioner member with a bid of $150,000?

It Settles The Issue

Funny stuff in the bidding process raises its ugly head again and we all know who is behind the curtain. Do we need another Flintco?

Jack with money so tight do you reckon

they is steering these contracts based primarily on favoritism rather than using our hard earned tax dollars efficiently? Didn't they just try to go and squeeze more taxes out of everybody? Whoops we forgot to collect a quarter million dollar water bill! Uh oh we left out 30% of what we wanted built in the waterpark..but we didn't notice until AFTER the tax was passed! Dang it folks we done went and left out most of the requirements on all the bids except for one! People is gonna catch on to this stuff sooner or later

figures lie and liars figure

Sorry but you cant use 1.8M people as potiential goers to the Water park in Wichita Falls. No one drives 2 hours to a water park, 45 minutes maybe. Wichita Falls has a population of about 105,000 and a MSA of close to 150,000. Fort Smith has less than 90,000 but has a MSA of close to 300,000. So your calculation and result of 5% just doesnt fly. So lets refigure your number for Wichita Falls 90,000 / 150,000 = 60%. Now lets apply your corrected ratio to Fort Smith 300,000 x 60% = 180,000. Or if you dont like these numbers then lets combine all of the MSAs within a 2 hour drive of Fort Smith. This would include NWA, Little Rock, Tulsa, etc... Now your math, approach and ill-conceived evaluation of the water park looks petty, childish, immature and haphazardly thought out.

Can The Wizard Behind The Curtain Continue To Pull Strings?

Will the Wizard behind the curtain demand the Directors remain in lockstep agreement with him and a certain agenda, or will the Directors decide to act on behalf of the citizens? Will this worn out curtain of secrecy ever be pulled back revealing the wizard? Unfortunately, maybe never?

Perhaps they knew exactly from the beginning..

..what it would cost. As the tale was told some things were added but it doesn't really make sense you would go to the voters without pretty much knowing exactly what you wanted much less you only had about 75% of it figured out. I keep thinking how nice a big pile of unobligated money would be if something was overbid and there was a refund policy. Suspicious me also wondered if that Quarter million trueup didn't for some reason need to wait until after the penny sales tax passed but as we know it was put off then failed. It is just so unusual to forget to collect a $250,000 bill. They may just all take turns sticking their arms through the curtain anymore since the Wizard supposedly was blown away in the '96 tornado.

Wizard

We all know who the Wizzard is in person and the Wiz days are over so let freedom ring and let the city rise from the ashes and be a mecca of opportunity for all!

Fort Smith doubles the pricetag.

Water Park Fund: In June 2004, a local investor group opened the Castaway Cove Water Park in the southeastern area of the city. The local investor group expended $6.7 million on the 24 capital assets at the Park, and was making a profit on the annual operations, but was unable to pay the debt service costs without additional cash outlays. As a result, the local investor group was faced with the reality that they would need to sell the assets and/or close the operation. After extensive analysis, the City purchased the Water Park and 29 acres of undeveloped land surrounding the Park from the local investors for $3.9 million in February 2010. To purchase the facilities, the City issued 15 Year Certificates of Obligation and began making the annual debt service payments with 4B Sales Tax Funds. The purchase of the facility will be paid off in 2025. Since then, operating revenues of the park have exceeded operating expenditures in every year that the park has been owned by the City. http://www.wichitafallstx.gov/documents/2/17/Adopted%20Budget%202013-2014-Final_201312191652532193.pdf

Way to Go Shorty!!

Excellent work! Not only did Wichita Falls get into the "Water Park" business at a possible 1/3rd of what our cost may end up as, they are turning a profit. Couldn't help but skim through the 2014 budget for Wichita Falls and noted the Hotel/Motel tax is used to fund their Event Center and Auditorium, period. No taxpayer subsidy! If I'm not mistaken, Fort Smith taxpayers are budgeted to subsidize $4.3 million towards the A&P and the Convention Center for 2014. It would be interesting to know the size of Wichita Falls salary packages in comparison to what FS pays at the A&P and convention center. What if the wizard is nothing more than a few weak men afraid to let go? More study to come.
Excellent work! Not only did Wichita Falls get into the "Water Park" business at a possible 1/3rd of what our cost may end up as, they are turning a profit. Couldn't help but skim through the 2014 budget for Wichita Falls and noted the Hotel/Motel tax is used to fund their Event Center and Auditorium, period. No taxpayer subsidy! If I'm not mistaken, Fort Smith taxpayers are budgeted to subsidize $4.3 million towards the A&P and the Convention Center for 2014. It would be interesting to know the size of Wichita Falls salary packages in comparison to what FS pays at the A&P and convention center. What if the wizard is nothing more than a few weak men afraid to ...>> Read the entire comment.

Wichita Falls Multipurpose Events Center

http://www.wichitafallstx.gov/documents/2/17/Adopted%20Budget%202013-2014-Final_201312191652532193.pdf Refer to the events center budget for comparison to the FSCC.......Pages 25,26,...54 thru 57. Page 8 for graphics.

Twice Half & Time Out

The latest waterpark budget number of 10.9 millon dollars is approaching double what it cost a private investment group to build a waterpark in Wichita Falls, TX. Later, the city of Wichita Falls was able to buy-out the private investors for about 4 million dollars, a third of what Fort Smith proponents have put out there as a starting figure. No wonder Mr. Lemaster has concerns for about the price being too high. He sounds like an honest man. Yet Fort Smith scalawags want to limit his "testimony" to points which support their boondoggle. Kinda like in a court of law where the judge determines what is admissible. Oh, I forgot. Judge Hudson is indeed in the middle of this latest ball of confusion. You can't trust the establishment in Fort Smith. Clean house, vote them all out while instituting a moratorium on new pork barrel projects. Time out, times are tough.

Its FBI Time

My thoughts are that it may be time for a Full Blown Investigation (FBI) of the boondoggle puppies at city hall and lets take a long hard look at where Judge Hudson gets his numbers from also. Its "time out", and all projects should be put on hold until we get all the facts that seem to stay hidden in the shadows. Someone on the Quorum Court or BOD should raise a red flag and ask for investigation by a outside agency. Something has a strange odor about this entire project and people should be put under oath and asked some compelling questions.

Outsiders

Mr. Lemaster is learning that outsiders' opinions are to be cherry-picked and spun by Fort Smith politicos. If I was Mr. Lemaster, I would steer clear of any dealings with Fort Smith now and forever. He'll become the scapegoat when it all hits the fan.