Monday, February 2, 2015

Under study: $100M arts center in North Little Rock, built with tax and Stephens gift

Posted By on Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 3:58 PM

click to enlarge PICTURE AN ARTS MUSEUM: Arising in property along the right side of Washington Avenue in this picture stretching southward out of the picture toward the Arkansas River. - GOOGLE STREET VIEW
  • Google street view
  • PICTURE AN ARTS MUSEUM: Arising in property along the right side of Washington Avenue in this picture stretching southward out of the picture toward the Arkansas River.

Since word leaked in late January of telephone polling of North Little Rock residents about a 1-cent sales tax increase, rumors of the scope of a project it would finance have grown to include the possibility that it includes a private contribution to a $100 million arts center that could relocate the Arkansas Arts Center from Little Rock.

So far, nobody is willing to divulge what the project is about. But Mayor Joe Smith confirms it is much bigger than a hotel and meeting facility and talks in terms of a $100 million project featuring a national stature arts center.

UPDATE: Multiple sources confirm late this evening that what's taking shape is a plan — if polling and other indicators are right — to ask voters for a sales tax that would go in part to the arts center development, with a relocated Arkansas Arts Center as its centerpiece, partially financed by a major gift from the Stephens family that owns Stephens Inc.

The Stephens family, whose vast holdings include a significant art collection with masterworks on display at the Arts Center, have been rumored to be a player in the project, which apparently targets property between Main Street and the Verizon arena and extending southward across Riverfront Drive to the Arkansas River. That property currently includes such uses as a bus station, pawn shop and barber college.

Mayor Smith said the polling was paid for by a private party and he's bound to honor their wishes for confidentiality. He said he has not yet been told the results of the poll and it's possible nothing will go forward if the results aren't favorable. But he said his city has shown a willingness to get behind "unique" projects, with past tax support for the Dickey-Stephens ballpark to which the Arkansas Travelers were relocated from Little Rock and the Verizon Arena. The Stephens family donated the land for the ballpark, which has a view to their headquarters in the Stephens Inc. tower across the river in Little Rock.

Smith said this potential project was not related to a recent city land sale for development of a hotel west of the Broadway bridge.

The project being contemplated for city support would be a multi-building "campus" that would include buildings cantilevered over Riverfront Drive as well as plazas and water features, Smith said. He said the project could make the city a national draw for arts — not only on a par but potentially better than Crystal Bridges, the Walton-financed arts museum in Bentonville that has been a smash hit with visitors and critics. That seems an exaggeration, given the Waltons' resources. But it also seems to support rumors about a connection to the Arkansas Arts Center. At today's prices you couldn't build and stock an arts center with much for $100 million. But if you started with a big collection, it would be another matter.

The Arkansas Arts Center occupies a city-owned building in MacArthur Park and is governed by a board appointed by the mayor, with City Board confirmation. Until Crystal Bridges came along, it was the state's pre-eminent arts institution. A new home — and possibly new additions from the Stephens collection (we're just speculating here) — would lift its stature considerably. But its loss would create a gaping hole in Little Rock, far more so than the lost of a minor league baseball team. Little Rock officials were given no advance notice of the plan. The city just this year increased its appropriation for maintenance of the Arts Center from $400,000 to $500,000 and also contributed $50,000 to capital costs.

The Stephenses have long been prominent supporters of the Arts Center and Chucki Bradbury, wife of Stephens Inc.'s chief operating officer, Curt Bradbury, is chair of the Arts Center Board.

Smith told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which first reported on the poll, that he'd been working on the project for seven or eight months. It caught many city leaders by surprise and all said they knew only what little Smith had told them in warning them that a poll was underway.

Smith repeated to me today what he'd told the Democrat-Gazette: That he could not support a one-cent increase in the city sales tax unless half was devoted to police and fire equipment.

The city currently assesses a penny sales tax, in addition to county and state levies for a total of 8 cents on the dollar. A hamburger tax adds three more cents to restaurant and hotel bills.

Smith said the sales tax produces $16 million a year. If half of that was devoted to a bond issue paired with a $40 million "philanthropic contribution," he said, the city could come up with a total of $100 million with a $60 million bond issue that could be paid off in 10 years.

So far, our efforts to get more specifics have been unsuccessful. Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens Inc., told Leslie Newell Peacock: "I'm not in a position to say anything about that." Todd Herman, director of the Arkansas Arts Center, said, "I can't comment."

This is all speculative, of course, but if this DOES come to fruition, you'd think something might have to be done to spruce up the waterfront a bit, currently home to former Mayor Pat Hays' navy — submarine, riverboat and such.

LATE UPDATE:  Rumor mill really grinding at this scoop. Does Rep figure in this too?  So says one correspondent. 

ALSO: Be sure to see our subsequent update on this story.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Favorite

Speaking of...

Comments (18)

Showing 1-18 of 18

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-18 of 18

Add a comment

More by Max Brantley

  • Arkansas Tech settles dispute with lawmakers riled by 'Sex on the Lawn'

    Legislators have dropped an effort to kill the Department of Diversity and Inclusion at Arkansas Tech in a dispute that arose over a student sex education program.
    • Mar 22, 2017
  • Another bill to stock the prisons

    The Senate today voted 20-9 to pass Sen. Bryan King's bill that says a fourth commitment to the Arkansas Department of Correction means the person sentenced must serve at least 80 percent of the sentence before parole eligibility.
    • Mar 22, 2017
  • Midweek open line

    The open line and news roundup.
    • Mar 22, 2017
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • In defense of Planned Parenthood and abortion rights

    An op-ed in today's New York Time by Katha Pollitt says what I've been struggling to say about the reaction to the attack on women's reproductive rights launched by means of the undercover videos made by anti-abortion activists.
    • Aug 5, 2015
  • Lawsuit filed over settlement in forum-shopping class action case

    The lawyers facing disciplinary action by federal Judge P.K. Holmes in Fort Smith over their settlement of a class action lawsuit against the USAA insurance company have a new legal headache.
    • Jun 21, 2016
  • The plight of the refugees: Dark episodes in Arkansas

    Ernest Dumas reaches into history, some personal, for moments in Arkansas's view of refugees. It was brought to mind by the current crisis in Europe and the political divisions over whether the U.S. should respond to the needs of the displaced.
    • Sep 22, 2015

Most Shared

Visit Arkansas

Forest bathing is the Next Big Thing

Forest bathing is the Next Big Thing

Arkansas is the perfect place to try out this new health trend. Read all about the what, why, where and how here.

Most Viewed

Most Recent Comments

Blogroll

 

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation