Fort Smith School Board moves forward with $40 million events complex

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The Fort Smith School Board took a step forward in plans for a new district performing arts center and basketball arena, with the board voting 7-0 Monday (April 28) to authorize Superintendent Dr. Benny Gooden to pursue a long-term lease of property owned by the Fort Smith Airport Commission.

The site, which sits on McKennon Boulevard with access from 66th and 74th Streets, was the final site among eight that were under consideration, according to Dr. Deanie Mehl, vice president of the school board.

One of the favored sites by the district was along Riverfront Drive near downtown Fort Smith, though the site ended up not being chosen due to flooding concerns.

Another site that was favored was near the proposed site along Phoenix Avenue, but Mehl said the owner was asking a price that was nearly double the land's appraised value.

"I wanted you all to understand this is an issue that we have evaluated for a great deal of time," she said. "We have spent a lot of time visiting sites, we had multiple meetings. We appreciate that this is not the best… It is the best option we have, all things considered."

She said while the preference of the school board would be to own the land outright, finding a large enough site to host what the school board had proposed was a difficult task.

In all, the site which Gooden will negotiate for with the Airport Commission is 33.2 acres, with 27.5 of those acres available for development.

Should the Airport Commission agree to the terms proposed by Gooden, the school district would begin leasing the property Oct. 1, 2015, for a term of 50 years, with an option for renewal at the lease's termination date in 2065.

The cost of the proposed lease would be 7 cents per square foot per year. That adds up to $7,000 per month, or $84,000 annually. The lease would increase by 3% in 2025, 2035, 2045 and 2055.

"The proposed lease terms are based on appraised property values in the area while also considering the public benefit of the planned project," Gooden wrote in a letter to Airport Director John Parker.

Architect Tim Risley of Risley & Associates, the district's architect for the project, said while some in the community may not be pleased with the site, it was the best choice considering a 6,000 seat and a large auditorium that will be housed on site, in addition to more than 1,500 parking spots.

"This has been important to try to get the site settled because there's not that many choices," he said. "We looked at eight. They all have beauty marks and they all have warts. But there's not that many choices available when you try to put together 30-something acres. I want them to settle and at least start the process on something just so we can have something cornered."

While the school board did vote to move forward in its attempt to secure the site, it’s far from a done deal because voters will have to approve an increase in the district's millage rate next year. No set figure has been announced, though Gooden said in January that the rate could be as low as 4.5 mills or as high was 6.5, largely dependent on how much the district anticipates receiving in partnership funds from the state for projects which could include the nearly $40 million events complex and a proposed third Fort Smith high school, which is projected to cost $65 million.

On the topic of a third high school, the school board voted 7-0 to enter into a contract with Business Information Systems to evaluate the district's view that a new high school was needed. The hiring of BIS followed a February school board meeting in which community leaders questioned the necessity of the new school.

According to Gooden, the district's population of 14,313 students was expected to blossom to about 17,000 students by the year 2023, which would necessitate a third high school and re-alignment of freshman to the city's high schools.Before Monday's unanimous vote, Mehl said the hiring of the consultant was a necessary expense for the district.

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"I think the thing that's important to remember is we're going to be going before the taxpayers in about 15, 16 months asking for a millage increase and we need to exhaust all our options so we can get the best plan of action to the taxpayers when we ask for the millage increase," Mehl said.

In other business, the school board voted to raise the base salary of new teachers with no experience to $37,500. The school board also voted to give pay raises to existing staff beginning next school year. The pay raises will range from 2.3% to 5.5%, for an average raise of 3.24%, according to Deputy Superintendent Dr. Gordon Floyd.

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