The Little Rock National Airport directed $40,000 from its marketing budget in May to help buy new turf for the school football field at a private Christian school where the executive director has a child enrolled.
Asked indirectly about the expenditure by an airport commissioner in June, Airport Director Ron Mathieu avoided a mention of the expenditure at the Little Rock Christian Academy and made it sound as if the money went for a variety of new advertising initiatives. (See sidebar for full transcript.)
The airport is casting the $40,000 as an ad buy. There is a 7-by-10-foot painted logo on the field that features the airport's web address, www.fly-lit.com.
The invoice for the check made out to Little Rock Christian Academy on May 15 notes that it is for a "turf sponsorship agreement." The airport issued the check a month after LRCA development director Jason Carson sent Airport Executive Director Ronald Mathieu an e-mail with the subject line "important reminder regarding your LRCA turf pledge ..."
Addressed to "Friends of Warrior Athletics," Carson's e-mail said, "I just wanted to remind you about your donation to the turf project. As of today, only about 40% of the pledges have been realized. We will need all pledges turned into cash donations before this project can be given the green light. ... Our deadline is fast approaching so please send it in as soon as possible and remember this is a tax-deductible donation."
Mathieu responded to Carson's e-mail saying he thought the "airport advertising pledge" should have been sent out earlier.
When a commissioner asked at a June commission meeting why May's marketing budget had gone from $6,000 last year to $47,000 this year, Airport Finance Director Carol Snay replied that it was because the airport had a $40,000 advertising expense. Commissioner Thomas Schueck asked for more information, and Mathieu jumped in, explaining that the expense was to push traffic the website; he cited specifically television and radio ads and a banner at the Race for the Cure. He did not mention the turf advertising at Little Rock Christian.
"Sir, as you know, we're pushing our website, we're pushing the development of the new terminal, we're pushing the new brand on the website. ... a number of things we did not do last year in terms of advertising because we were developing that as a result of retreat with commission. ... We've done a number of television and radio ads as you know ... So we're just really pushing our website," Mathieu told Schueck.
"I hate to tell you this, but I haven't seen any advertisements on the airport," Schueck responded. "It should be visible somewhere and I haven't seen it." Mathieu: "Well, you remember Race for the Cure, we had banners up there, and there were other public events that we had that we've been advertising ... I think you're going to see more things happen."
Mathieu has refused to be interviewed. He demanded through a spokesman that questions be submitted in writing. But neither he nor spokeswoman Tiajuana Williams have responded to subsequent written questions, including whether the airport advertises at any other high schools in Little Rock. The school development officer as yet has not returned a call on rates charged others for signs on the football field.
After Williams was aware Arkansas Times reporters were either out of town or out of the office Friday, afternoon, Williams called a news conference for Mathieu's response to our story at 5:07 p.m., with the news conference at 5:30 p.m. The Times became aware of this after the fact. Williams has yet to respond to questions about Mathieu's statement. Late Friday evening, she did provide a copy of a prepared statement by Mathieu in which he accused the Times of printing "innuendos and untruths," though he cited no factual errors. He said the deal was clean because it was approved by other airport officers and that it would have been unfair for him to have to pass up the opportunity simply because he had a personal relationship to the school. He called it a "clean business transition [sic]."
Commissioners had been warned by Mathieu's staff before the Arkansas Times called Friday that the newspaper had been researching airport records. When reached Friday, though none had known about the expenditure previously, none was ready to criticize the expense.
Commissioner Jesse Mason insisted that the money was not for providing turf for the field but to advertise the airport (that later proved to be a talking point provided commissioners by Williams). He said advertising on the field of a small private school was a normal marketing decision. He noted that there are ads at War Memorial Field as well. (War Memorial has some ad deals, it's true, but none is with the Little Rock National Airport.)
Mason described the advertising as a 10-year contract, and a bargain at $4,000 a year, though it was all paid up front, unusual in the advertising business.
Commissioner Schueck said he didn't remember his questions at the meeting, and expressed confidence in Mathieu. "Our director is a pretty sharp guy; I'm sure he operated within the system." He did seem surprised at the way the turf sign was paid for, exclaiming "$40,000 at once?"
Commissioner Jimmy Moses said he couldn't comment because Airport Commission chairman Bob East had said all questions should come to him. East also declined comment, saying it was likely the commission will bring the subject up at its meeting Tuesday, Nov. 16.
Commissioner Virgil Miller also limited his comments. He said it would be important to determine if policy was followed.
Mason said he believed the airport has a marketing budget of $270,000 for the year.
Though airport officials have given the Times no answers over two days of inquiries, marketing manager Tiajuana Williams is providing talking points to airport commissioners. Commissioner Kay Arnold, in response to an e-mail question, relayed information, Williams had sent to her. Among others, Williams told Arnold that the airport was also supposed to get a 4-by-8 "board" ad for its $40,000, which she insisted was not a contribution for turf. Williams told Arnold:
"We felt this to be 'kosher' as the value is exceptional for the term of this advertising flight. For less than $4,000 a year we have exposure to people who are considered loyal to products and services provided by companies that partner with them through advertising sponsorships. Our targets include those with discretionary incomes who travel frequently for business and leisure. This advertising opportunity fit well for our goals.
"Over ten years (possibly 12) we will reach our audience repetitively for a very reasonable annual advertising cost and in a way that doesn’t get caught in too much clutter."
Williams note to Arnold also mentioned other advertising by the airport -- on KARK-TV and KUAR public radio and on Talk Business, a business and politics website operated by Roby Brock. It paid $3,000 for a full year of advertising on Talk Business, the memo said. No other high school football field advertising was mentioned.