Commission approves plans to help fund Walton Arts Center renovations, regional park

A conceptual rendering shows what an expanded Walton Arts Center could look like at the corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue in Fayetteville

Courtesy graphic

Advertising and Promotion commissioners approved plans on Monday to help fund Walton Arts Center renovations and a regional park in southwest Fayetteville.

The plans include submitting a proposal to the City Council that would extend voter-approved bonds, and spending $600,000 in commission reserves.

Bond proposal

The bond proposal comes from a plan originally proposed by Marilyn Heifner, the group’s executive director.

Heifner estimated that $11.3 million could be raised by extending bonds voters approved in 1997 to build the Fayetteville Town Center. Heifner’s plan is to pay off the Town Center debt and use the remaining money generated to jointly help fund the arts center’s Dickson Street expansion plans and a planned regional park off Cato Springs Road. The proposal suggests giving $6.5 million to the Walton Arts Center and $3.258 million to the city to help build the park.

If approved, the Walton Arts Center money would go toward an estimated $20 million construction project, which includes a new facade and entryway at the corner of West Avenue, a larger lobby, an expanded Starr Theatre, additional backstage space, and a re-configured Rosen Memorial Rose Garden.

With some UA performances moving to the new on-campus concert hall, Walton Arts Center officials have said the center will be able to host shows for about 25 more days each year. When combined with the planned renovations, officials predicted the extra shows will bring over 20,000 new attendees to Dickson Street annually.

The park money would help build a 200-acre sports and recreation park with baseball, soccer, softball and multi-use fields; plus basketball, tennis and volleyball courts; playgrounds, trails, pavilions, a great lawn, water features and a concert amphitheater to attract touring artists.

A sign noting the future home of a regional park stands at Judge Cummings Road just off Cato Springs Road in southwest Fayetteville.

Flyer photo

About $20 million would still be needed to complete the park, which is set to be built in several phases. Full construction is estimated at $27.7 million. The city has set aside about $4.5 million of its share of HMR tax collections for the park over the last 11 years.

Preliminary estimates show that the potential economic impact of the regional park could reach as much as $6 million each year through the addition of new sports tournaments and an amphitheater.

Not a done deal

The City Council would first need to sign off on any bond issuance that uses hotel, motel and restaurant taxes. Council members could also tweak the proposal before giving final approval. Fayetteville voters would then have to approve the plan in an election.

Despite needing more money and ultimately, voter approval, commissioners said Monday’s decision was a necessary first step in seeing an expanded arts center on Dickson Street and giving a much-needed boost to the long-awaited regional park.

“To me, all this is is a push forward and the stamp of our general approval that something like this is important,” said commissioner Justin Tennant.

“When you look at the park and the Walton Arts Center, I don’t think there’s any two bigger economic drivers,” he said. “I think it’s important to do it to get it moving and then get the public as involved as possible.”

$600,000 instead of $1 million

Arts center officials in December asked the commission for two separate $1 million donations – one in 2013 and one in 2014. While the commission does keep an estimated $2 million in annual reserves, it has already allocated $500,000 in 2013 to the University of Arkansas’ concert hall project.

Since December, commissioners spoke repeatedly about funding a portion of the arts center’s request, but didn’t discuss any specific amount.

The group on Monday used estimates from the Walton Arts Center’s project expense breakdown to arrive at the $600,000 figure. The original $1 million request was for $600,000 in design fees and $400,000 in fees associated with the construction of a new backstage and administrative office space.

Commissioners voted to only help fund the design phase, and listed five specific conditions the Walton Arts Center must agree to before receiving the money. The conditions include use requirements, an annual audit during the project and quarterly usage reports (see details below).

Surveys coming

All groups involved have said they plan to collect as much input as possible from citizens before crafting any final bond proposal.

City Council members and A&P commissioners agreed to partner on a survey at up to $10,000 apiece to ask residents how best to spend HMR funds gained from the possible bond extension.

Terri Trotter, the arts center’s chief operating officer, said the Walton Arts Center would soon begin a series of formal and informal meetings with patrons, donors and any Fayetteville residents who are willing to show up for town hall-style meetings that will likely begin in April.

Jeff Schomburger, chair of the arts center’s board of directors, said he wants to use the meetings to make sure Fayetteville residents understand that programming on Dickson Street will be mostly unaffected by the Walton Arts Center’s plans for a new facility in Bentonville.

“We’re going to do six to eight Broadway shows here for the next 20 years, regardless of what happens,” Schomburger told commissioners earlier this year.

He reiterated those remarks on Monday.

“This board is confident and committed to running this expanded (Fayetteville) center at 96 percent capacity,” he said. “If and when something opens up north, we will continue to run at 96 percent capacity right through whatever expansion takes place.”

Conditional donation to WAC

The A&P’s $600,000 donation to the Walton Arts Center is contingent upon the arts center signing a statement agreeing to a set of conditions prepared by commissioner Matthew Petty, who also serves as an alderman on the Fayetteville City Council.

The Walton Arts Center will:

  1. provide and annual audit, conducted by an independent outside auditor, each year during the project, and for any other years prior to or after, as requested; and
  2. provide quarterly reports of the use of the provided funds until the funds have been spent; and
  3. continue with a capital campaign – quiet and public phases – working to secure the remaining funds needed to complete the expansion as described in the proposal; and
  4. spend the provided funds exclusively on the design, pre-construction, and construction costs of the expansion of Walton Arts Center’s Fayetteville facility; and
  5. not spend the funds on programming costs, administrative or otherwise.