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Ben Geren Aquatics Center work ‘moving forward’ and on schedule

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Images that appeared on Facebook this week show a Ben Geren Aquatics Center that is no longer a pile of dirt, but instead something that resembles a set of pools. The images, posted by MAHG Architecture, show a wave pool that has poured concrete in it, as well as the outline of what will eventually be a lazy river and a kids play area.

Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said even with the amount of rain this summer, construction is still on schedule.

"It's been an unusual summer," he said. "But things are moving forward in an orderly fashion overall with the project. And we'll plan on organizing a tour that will have the two governmental entities and the media sometime within the next few weeks. Whenever things look further along, it will make for an interesting tour."

The project took another step forward Wednesday (Aug. 13) with the opening of four bids for the following items (each item received only one bid):
• Earthwork - $67,880 by Harris Fort Smith;
• Construction of shade structures and a concession area - $260,700 by Play by Design; an alternate fourth shade structure was quoted at $19,800;
• Concrete work on the entry driveway - $421,460 by Steve Beam Construction; and
• Audio systems by Matlock Electric at $11,584.

In all, the four bids totaled $762,624 not counting the possible additional shade structure. Hudson said the bids were enhancements possible since parts of the aquatics center have collectively come in nearly $1 million below budget.

"Our goal is to try and enhance the project," Hudson said, though he said is was not yet determined if the project would come in right at the nearly $11 million budgeted for the project by the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County. "So we'll evaluate those bids and determine what our next step will be in the project."

While construction work continues, Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Director Mike Alsup said three companies are under consideration for a possible management contract with the governments to run the water park.

The companies include ARM (American Resort Management), USA Pools Inc. and AmusementAquatic Management Group. The latter is headed by Kent Lemasters, who previously advocated to the governments during a joint meeting for the inclusion of the wave pool concept. Lemasters had advocated for the inclusion, but in e-mails never shared with the Board of Directors or the Quorum Court he expressed an opinion that the estimated costs for the project were too high. He said the water park could be built for between $6 million and $8 million, including a wave pool.

Alsup said interviews with the management groups were "going well," with Hudson adding that he hoped to have a deal hammered out before the end of the year if the governments ultimately decide to allow an outside firm to manage the facility.

"That's probably 75% of the way through," Hudson said of interviews and selection of a management company. "You know, we're getting close to coming up with something that we can talk with both governmental entities about. But that's not complete. But updating, that's going to involve a couple steps. One of them is updating the original business plan as a part of Ballard King as that consultant. The other one is what Mike has been coordinating, and that's sending out requests for qualifications. We've had interviews and we're narrowing down possible management companies. So that's in process.

"…(It'll) be in the last quarter of this year. We're doing it as quickly as we can. It's just a matter of working through the process in a responsible fashion. We know that we need to… The quicker we get an action plan so we can start acting on some of the decisions that need to be made, the better."

Still left to be bid are landscaping and signage for the aquatics center, as well as flooring that did not receive any bids on Wednesday.

But with the earth starting to resemble pools and rivers at the site, Hudson said it would just be a matter of time before commuters in south Fort Smith start noticing various components of the aquatics center popping up out of the ground.

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As for when the aquatics center will resemble a facility full of slides and visible from the street, Alsup said it will still be a bit of time, adding that concessions and other facilities will rise first.

"I think they (slides) come toward the end of the project because they're working from the entry building to the back. So you probably won't see the slides until later in the project."

The Ben Geren Aquatics Center is scheduled to open Memorial Day 2015.

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