Walton Arts Center governance changes approved

Design renderings show what the expanded Walton Arts Center could look like on Dickson Street.

WAC/Boora Architects

Walton Arts Center officials and donors can rest easy now that a new governance structure is in place.

City Council members last night approved a proposed set of changes that allow the arts center to legally act as a regional entity instead of a direct agent of the city of Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas.

With the Arkansas Music Pavilion now open in Rogers and with another performing arts center planned in Bentonville, arts center officials said new governance documents were needed to reflect a more regional mission of the organization, and to allow the center’s board to oversee operations at those new facilities. Mostly, they said, because some of their biggest donors were hesitant to continue contributing money for capital campaigns until a new governance structure is in place.

Aldermen also approved a new 25-year lease at the arts center’s original facility, which is set for a major renovation on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. The lease includes legally enforceable assurances that programming on Dickson Street will not suffer once a new, larger theater is built in Bentonville. The language approved Tuesday includes a specific metric that details the quality and number of Broadway performances, dance performances and educational opportunities that must remain in Fayetteville through the life of the lease.

Changes initially delayed

The new governance documents were first discussed by City Council members two weeks ago, but a decision was delayed after Alderman Justin Tennant suggested the changes should go into effect only after the Dickson Street renovation is complete or after all of the $23 million is raised for the project.

Tennant said he wanted to make sure Fayetteville voters received what they were promised in the November 2013 special election when they approved a sales tax measure that would contribute up to $6.9 million in bonds to put toward the arts center’s plans for a renovated Dickson Street complex.

Expansion plans include a larger, 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

“I believe that the 3,640 people that voted ‘yes’ last November deserve this assurance so that in the future, a Dickson Street renovation of the Walton Arts Center could not be changed,” Tennant said.

Board reaffirms commitment

After hearing Tennant’s concerns, the arts center’s board acted quickly to reaffirm its commitment to Fayetteville.

Within a week, board members passed a resolution that promised no money would be raised “to construct any additional new performance facilities within or outside of Fayetteville without first having funded and completed the construction of the Fayetteville expansion.”

Any exception to the commitment, the resolution stated, would require approval by the Fayetteville City Council.

Local leaders unite

For added assurance, a group of local leaders spoke Tuesday night to offer personal pledges and to urge aldermen to adopt the governance changes.

Greg Lee, chairman of the arts center’s board, said Fayetteville has been and will remain “the centerpiece and engine” of the Walton Arts Center and made a personal commitment to ensure that the Dickson Street facility is expanded and upgraded.

University of Arkansas Chancellor David Gearhart said as a longtime resident with obvious concerns about arts and education in Fayetteville, he believed the new governance structure would benefit both the city and the university.

“The city of Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas are the two entities that have to do everything we can to make certain that the Walton Arts Center remains viable and continues to be an important entity in our city and on Dickson Street. We believe that in order to do that — to ensure that we’re going to have a viable entity — we need to enact these new governance documents,” said Gearhart.

Joe Fennel, president of the Dickson Street Merchants Association and owner of Bordinos restaurant, said if governance changes are needed to ensure a Fayetteville expansion happens, they should be approved.

Design renderings show 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

As a business owner and operator on Dickson Street since 1980, Fennel said he’s seen firsthand the effect the arts center has on the vitality of the entertainment district and the city as a whole.

“Having witnessed Dickson Street before the Walton Arts Center was built, I can honestly tell you that Fayetteville is a better, grander city because of those who had the vision and raised the money to build the Walton Arts Center on Dickson Street,” said Fennel.

A convincing case

Alderman Tennant said he was convinced.

“I was pleased last week when I saw that the Walton Arts Center Council pass their resolution,” said Tennant. “Because what I saw there was a lot of citizens, many of whom are from Fayetteville and who I think want what’s best for this city.”

“I think tonight we’ve seen them step up and give their word,” he said. “This is very important to me because depending on one or two people who say, “Trust me,” or “Trust us,” was not sufficient to me, and I didn’t think it was sufficient to the people of Fayetteville. However, when I see these people tonight…it’s clear to me that these people truly have given their word.”

“I want to thank the WAC Council for making this assurance,” said Tennant. “I want to thank them for giving us their personal assurances and giving their word that this project will happen as the voters were told it would.”

Council members voted 7-1 to approve the changes Tuesday night. Alderman Alan Long voted against the proposal and said he wanted the changes to be discussed a third time during the July 15 City Council meeting.