Council delays Walton Arts Center governance changes

Aldermen may decide to wait until the Walton Arts Center’s planned expansion on Dickson Street is complete before proposed changes to the center’s governance structure go into effect.

WAC/Boora Architects

Fayetteville aldermen might soon make Walton Arts Center officials put their money where their mouth is.

The council this week delayed a decision to approve proposed changes to the arts center’s governance structure.

Aldermen said they want to allow more time for public input on the proposal, but also want to consider adding assurances about the Walton Arts Center’s planned $23 million expansion on Dickson Street.

Governance changes

Because the arts center’s main governing body was created in 1986 as an “agent” of Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas, its articles of incorporation, bylaws and lease agreement pertain only to the Dickson Street campus.

With the Arkansas Music Pavilion now open in Rogers and with another performing arts center planned in Bentonville, the arts center and its donors say new governance documents are needed to reflect a more regional mission of the organization, and to allow the center’s board to oversee operations at those new facilities.

“Our largest donors collectively want the assurance that we can operate on a regional basis,” said Peter Lane, arts center CEO. “What nobody wants to have happen is for somebody to raise their hand – as has happened – and say, ‘You’re an agency. You don’t have a right to do what you’re doing. You don’t have a right to act as a regional entity.'”

Voters were shown a detailed expansion plan that included an expanded and reconfigured lobby with a built-in concession and ticketing center, expanded restrooms, and a reoriented staircase plan that would help unify the main and upstairs lobby areas.

WAC/Boora Architects

City Attorney Kit Williams said he would be comfortable recommending governance changes if the city received “legal commitments” with “enforceable assurances” that the Dickson Street campus would not become a second-class facility once a new center is built in Bentonville.

“I wanted some assurances that if we gave up our status as the principal over the agent…we would have a similar sort of performances that we have had for so long,” said Williams.

When negotiating the changes, Williams said he insisted on language meant to preserve programming on Dickson Street with a specific metric that includes the quality and number of Broadway performances, dance performances and educational opportunities.

He also wanted a 25-year extension of the center’s lease on Dickson Street that requires the Walton Arts Center to begin a capital fundraising campaign to renovate and enlarge the Fayetteville campus.

Williams said both the arts center and university agreed to his requests, and approved the proposal last month.

“I was happy to be able to see that,” said Williams. “I think we worked out as good of an agreement as we could’ve gotten.”

Fayetteville first

Alderman Justin Tennant called the proposed changes “a really good start,” but said a key factor was missing from the agreement.

Fayetteville residents, he said, want more than just a guarantee of programming and the beginnings of a fundraising campaign.

“We were the only municipality 25 years ago that stepped forward to be a partner in the Walton Arts Center and we were the only ones that have stepped up recently,” he said. “We chose to be a partner of the Walton Arts Center with the promise of a renovated facility on Dickson Street.”

Design renderings showed a renovated Starr Theater that includes a 250-seat space with retractable seats to allow for a broader range of events that cater to dance, music, education and more technical productions.

WAC/Boora Architects

Voters in the November 2013 special election agreed to issue up to $6.9 million in bonds to put toward the arts center’s plans for a renovated Dickson Street complex. During the campaign, voters were shown a detailed expansion plan that included a new entrance facing Dickson Street designed to create a more inviting atmosphere; an expanded Starr Theater with its own entrance; a reconfigured lobby area that could serve as an event space all its own; and additional backstage space to keep Starr Theater from having to serve as a dressing room when large Broadway shows are in town.

“I think at the end of the day, the citizens of Fayetteville want what was promised to them in November.”

Approve now, trigger later

Tennant said he would support the governance changes, but added that they should only go into effect after the Walton Arts Center has built or raised all the money needed for the renovated Fayetteville campus.

Lane said if the governance changes aren’t approved first, the center’s largest donors might not be willing to give more money for construction projects.

“We have a chicken and the egg issue here,” he said.

Lane told aldermen he was “very committed” to the success of the fundraising campaign. “That’s our primary focus,” he said. “We have no intent not to do it.”

Tennant said while he is confident the arts center could raise the funds it needs, he wants more than just a verbal commitment.

“In business, when this much money is at hand, I like to take the individual out of the conversation,” said Tennant. “Because you’ve got to have it down on paper.”

With no decision at Tuesday’s meeting, the council will discuss the issue again on July 1.