Lower bids allow for more features for Ben Geren Aquatics Center

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A building permit valued at $9.764 million was issued last week for the Ben Geren Aquatics Center and Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said it was a sign that the project is on schedule for a Memorial Day 2015 opening.

Hudson said sealed bids unveiled for different aspects of the aquatics center were favorable enough for the site that amenities initially scaled back were able to be reintroduced to the design of the aquatics center.

"One area of enhancements that I was particularly grateful to address was more shade structures that will serve everybody well, particularly parents, grandparents and adults there for their children. They'll appreciate more shade and I've appreciated that," he said, adding that there would be "enhancements to some of the amenities to the lazy river, like the fake rock and a waterfall, things like that. It will help it be more visually stimulating and enjoyable."

In all, Hudson said it appears bids came in about $900,000 under what the county and city of Fort Smith were expecting for the nearly $11 million project. But he said the money saved was not just extra money to be put back into each government's designated parks or capital improvement funds.

"In order to try to get the project within budget, some of the features were scaled back," he said, adding that the hope was to try and get low bids and reintroduce those amenities based on the actual numbers versus estimates.

"But understanding that we were curtailing features below what we would anticipate were desirable, frankly, I was relieved to bring these features into the project. I think people will be thankful we've done that and it will serve us well for years to come."

AQUATICS CENTER MANAGEMENT
With construction and final designs on track and with building permits now issued, Hudson said focus is shifting to management in anticipation of the aquatic center's opening next year. He said the city and county are soliciting RFQs (request for quotes) from companies interested in managing the aquatic center for the governments.

While the governments are seeking RFQs, Hudson said hiring an outside firm to manage the facility is not something he or his counterparts at the city are ready to do just yet. He said the governments are in an exploratory phase when it comes to management.

"It's worth giving consideration to someone with experience to see what we can learn from them and what they can offer to run this as efficiently as we can," he said.

The final recommendation to the Fort Smith Board of Directors and the Sebastian County Quorum Court will come after the RFQs have arrived, as well as an updated business analysis from Ballard King & Associates.

Ballard authored a January 2010 study that showed the aquatics center could lose somewhere between $113,472 and $125,213 per year. But Hudson said total revenues from municipal water parks in other parts of the state show the facilities producing a positive cash flow.

"The Rogers facility had a good year in their first year. Their revenues exceeded expenses by $400,000. Clarksville (was) over, I think, by $20,000. Those were good signs for us that if these are properly priced and operated well, they'll be favorably received. These could be self-sufficient and have funds go back into maintenance and to some extent, improvement. Those are the goals there."

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Hudson said he was ready to get the updated plan from Ballard, as well as the RFQs, as the two governments work together "to assess the value of services that could be rendered and how that will work with our program, that's the goal. Whether we see value or not, we don't know."

He said the landscape for an aquatics center from a business standpoint was different now than when the study was being researched and authored in the latter half of 2009. And that is why work is starting now just after the multi-million building permit was issued to ensure the aquatic center is ready for business on Memorial Day 2015. As more activity happens at the construction site, Hudson said citizens should also expect more action by the administration and legislative bodies of both governments.

"(Updates will) continue to be reported and discussed between the city and county. I imagine more meetings will be necessary as discussions need to be had. This will be a fun project for people and I hope it is an asset for our area that keeps us competitive in the regional marketplace."

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