Mayor says Arts Center relocation to NLR 'not going to happen anytime soon' | Arkansas Blog

Monday, July 6, 2015

Mayor says Arts Center relocation to NLR 'not going to happen anytime soon'

Posted By on Mon, Jul 6, 2015 at 2:37 PM

STAYING PUT: For now, talk of a move of the Arkansas Arts Center to North Little Rock is on hold.
  • STAYING PUT: For now, talk of a move of the Arkansas Arts Center to North Little Rock is on hold.

North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith
confirmed for me today what a long period of silence and some recent tips indicated: The idea to relocate the Arkansas Arts Center from MacArthur Park to a riverfront location in North Little Rock is, if not dead, "not going to happen anytime soon."

His prepared statement:

The Arts Center is going through an important process of determining some long-term goals. This process is neither easy nor immediate.

"Although both polls were consistent and appear favorable for a partnership, I think everyone realizes that a more deliberate study of all the options is needed. And that will take time.

"In short, not right now, but who knows what will happen in the next couple years."

The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation has commissioned two polls on the idea of public support in North Little Rock for pledging a sales tax increase to building a facility that could cost $100 million or more. Some private contributions also would be expected, though how much could be anticipated has never been firmed up. Much of the discussion of the idea originated among people connected to the Stephens Inc. financial empire, longtime supporters of the Arts Center.

Leslie Peacock has written extensively on the desire for a new arts center, based on a variety of shortcomings in the existing facility. Also in this cover story.

Bobby Tucker, chair of the Foundation, has been leading exploration of site and money-raising options on behalf of the main charity behind the center, which is municipally governed and sits on public land. The Arts Center is conducting a study of museum needs and possibilities for a new facility. The city of Little Rock has come up with some ideas on other locations, including a different location in MacArthur Park, but nothing firm has yet emerged from Little Rock about financing.

Tucker has not released findings of the poll, but I'd been told that North Little Rock soundings weren't favorable to a sales tax increase to build an arts center in the city. The idea has been to have an additional penny tax, which could pay for a $100 million bond issue over 20 years, and then continue a portion of that tax for operations.

Smith told me, without revealing specifics of what he'd been told about the poll, that he didn't take the results so pessimistically. They "appear favorable to me," he said, though conceding the numbers were "borderline." He also said he'd only met once with a California consultant who's advising the arts center and who I've been told had negative thoughts about a location in North Little Rock. Smith said he couldn't imagine a better location than his idea to renovate space east of Main now currently occupied by a bus station and some small commercial buildings, plus land between there and the river.

Smith said it was going to take time for the consultant to explore all options, so there was no longer any point in aiming toward a tax election this year. "There was no way we could look at an August election with the necessary due diligence and feel comfortable."

Smith insisted his city still had the desire to do such a project. But he said, "It would have to be a public-private partnership." Tucker, particularly, has emphasized the lack to date of any firm financial commitments from the private sector. I've been assured by other sources they'd emerge at the proper time, though precise amounts have been impossible to pin down.

My reading of all the developments is that the poll indicates, if nothing else, no willingness on the part of North Little Rock voters to tote the entire note. (See Smith statement on favorable attitudes to a "partnership.") I'd venture a guess, too, that the Arts Center suffers from a lack of sufficiently broad community interest and support.

Tucker was out of his office Monday on vacation.

UPDATE: Polling also has been done about a Little Rock location. Still can't get in touch with Mayor Stodola, but he reportedly indicates stronger support for the arts center on the side of the river that is its current home.

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