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.

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