Leader of study of new Arts Center outlines $100 million public contribution | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Leader of study of new Arts Center outlines $100 million public contribution

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 2015 at 4:07 PM

BOBBY TUCKER: Expands vision of public portion of Arts Center facility. - LITTLE ROCK SOIREE
  • Little Rock Soiree
  • BOBBY TUCKER: Expands vision of public portion of Arts Center facility.
The talk of a new facility for the Arkansas Arts Center now is in terms of a $100 million public contribution.

The latest iteration came after a meeting of the Arkansas Arts Center Board today.

If a new facility in North Little Rock were to result from a recent strategic plan and ongoing behind-the-scenes discussion, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation chair Bobby Tucker gave this scenario:

Rather than using collections from a half-penny tax over 10 years, as North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith originally described to the Times, which would produce about $60 million, the half-penny would be used to finance a 20-year bond issue to produce $100 million, which would cover the cost of building the arts center. After the bonds are paid off, the tax would sunset except for 1/8 of a cent to pay for operations of the arts center.

Or that was the thinking Tucker outlined.

"All these numbers are so premature," Smith said later in a telephone interview. "All we know is half a penny will raise $8 million a year. Then I would see how much money I could raise outside the tax. ... That's what we do on every project. We've got to get others to help us. My job is not only trying to convince our citizens its a worthwhile project but to get others invested in it. "

Tucker said no private dollars had been committed to building the Arts Center, though Smith's thinking has from the first has been that private money would be part of the final mix. But, more surprisingly, Tucker said at one point that the Foundation did not intend to seek any private dollars for the building.

"Ridiculous," responded one person deeply involved in efforts to build support for both the project itself and private contributions. Major projects in recent years in Little Rock — the new baseball stadium, Verizon Arena — have had tax support but have been sold as "public-private partnerships" with at least some element of private money. This project is no different and both Smith and our other sources have said a promise of private commitments would be critical to the success of a tax election in North Little Rock for the public share.

After the meeting, Arts Center Director Todd Herman told the Times the Arts Center is “actively pursuing private donations,” money that would pay for programming, cost overruns and go to the endowment of the Arts Center, held by the Foundation. (Tucker did say he expected that private dollars would be donated to the Foundation to support the endowment once a new arts center was built.) Herman said the Arts Center was waiting to see what the cities would offer before setting its own capital campaign goals.

Some political complications could be expected if the Foundation said all private money went to its control, and was not technically a part of the public project. 

Herman said he’d like to see a 160,000-square-foot building, which would be 50,000 square feet larger than the Arts Center is now. He believes it could be built for $600 a square foot, based on contemporary construction costs of other arts centers across the country.\

Herman also seemed doubtful the new arts center could be built in MacArthur Park because of its historic nature. Mayor Mark Stodola has said he believes to the contrary; that a new arts center could be built south of the current footprint.  There was once a ballpark in what is now green space south of the Arts Center, unlikely to confer historic status on that particular area unless it was included in subsequent applications for historic status. Location aside, Stodola hasn't yet proposed any means of coming up with $100 million in public dollars from a city struggling to balance its budget.

At the meeting of the Arts Center’s board of directors, Tucker updated the board on the Foundation’s planning for a new arts center. He informed the board about the poll of North Little Rock voters to see if they would tax themselves to build a new arts center, and said the Foundation had told Stodola it would pay for a poll on this side of the river as well.

Arts Center Board Chairman Mary Ellen Irons warned fellow board members, “Don’t take everything you read as the truth,” characterizing what “the press” has reported about the Arts Center’s plans for a new building as speculation.

She was referring to reporting in the Arkansas Times. The Times only speculation so far has been who would contribute private dollars, including billionaire Warren Stephens, a longtime supporter of the Arts Center. Tucker said after the meeting that Stephens has not committed a penny — who would at this stage of the game? Hard to believe the Foundation would ask the taxpayers for $100 million without the promise of significant private funds.

The Democrat-Gazette called Arkansas Blog editor Max Brantley for a comment after Tucker and Irons threw down on Times' reporting about the project. The Democrat-Gazette editorially had dismissed the story as being without basis. Since then, it has become clear that a plan to find a way to build a new arts center, with a focus on North Little Rock, was very much a reality, just as the Blog reported.

Brantley boiled down his response to this comment: "If Bobby Tucker thinks Dogtown voters will tote the whole note on a new arts center, I have a velvet Elvis to sell him. But they might like a public-private partnership proposal. If they do, significant private contributions will be forthcoming, a chunk associated with the big skyscraper in Little Rock where Tucker works, the one with the name Stephens Inc. on the side."

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