Arts Center campaign begins, could use more transparency | Arkansas Blog

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Arts Center campaign begins, could use more transparency

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 2016 at 6:54 AM

click to enlarge A FREEWAY RUNS NEAR IT: But leaders dismiss any concerns about the widening of I-30 to 10 lanes in asking the public for $37 million in expansion money.
  • A FREEWAY RUNS NEAR IT: But leaders dismiss any concerns about the widening of I-30 to 10 lanes in asking the public for $37 million in expansion money.

As I mentioned yesterday, the campaign began for a $37 million bond issue to expand and rehabilitate the Arkansas Arts Center.

It's a worthy cause if the Arts Center is to remain a top arts institution and grow in appeal and attendance.

But .....

The campaign to approve the money is marked by the same clubishness and lack of transparency that has long marked the Arts Center and has contributed, I think, to broad public disinterest in a vital institution.

Who IS the Committee for Arts and History that is running the campaign? Yes, an amiable, reliable and well-known businessman with a history of good works, Gary Smith, is the leader of the group. But exactly who decided that he'd head the committee and picked the others who would serve, including, weirdly, the head of a state agency with direct interests in the museums in the park, Heritage Director Stacy Hurst. She reportedly was tabbed for her connections to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who could hardly be viewed as a player in Little Rock politics, having lost the city convincingly in his election contest with Mike Ross. She didn't make the news conference, by the way.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Chelsea Boozer reported today that the committee, not the city, would pay the $116,000 cost of holding a special election Feb. 9 — a favorite artifice for public tax spending initiatives because they can be tailored to reach only those likely to vote for the measure. Who is going to put up that money, plus the consulting fee to the Markham Group consultants, the mailing cost and whatever incidentals are necessary to bring out 2 or 3 percent of the voters to approve the bond issue, which will be repaid, with additional interest, by a recently approved two-cent increase in the tax on hotel rooms? The agreement seemed to be something of a surprise to Gary Smith and the mayor.

Also: Will backers be disclosed fully BEFORE the election? Will the money come from the bond dealers, bond lawyers, construction firms and others pre-ordained to get the business on the expansion project? Or will there be a legitimate RFP process for that work?

And speaking of money: Yesterday's news conference passed with only the vaguest assurances that private money will be forthcoming to match the public's contribution to the work. In other great cities with great arts institutions, private money has always taken the lead in financing. Only in Little Rock are taxpayers expected to step up first, including for cultural institutions run by — and often mostly for — the elite.  Here, be it an arts center, a tech park or a new pipe factory, public money is the first requirement.

Voters deserve a precise spending plan on this project. Will the project go forward on bond money alone if no significant private money materializes. How much private money precisely, is expected? Where will it come from? Will it come with strings? Will the money go into the city-owned structure, or will it be sequestered somehow outside of public control, say in the hands of the private foundation that owns the Arts Center collection and has been less than non-forthcoming about its workings (remember the exploration of a move to North Little Rock, denied even as it was very much in progress)?

As noted by Jacob Kauffman, who reported in depth on the news conference for KUAR, the publicity handout doesn't mention a small fact — the size of the bond issue. Fearful of sticker shock, maybe? I actually think it's small against what would be ideal, particularly if private givers step up. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, for once, a private party pledged a huge sum to a worthwhile project and urged the public to join in, rather than it happening the other way around? We've gone down this road on past "public-private partnerships." The Verizon Arena was $60 million plus in tax money. The private investment was rent of skyboxes and a payment for valuable naming rights. The Tech Park has yet to see a dollar of private venture capital investment.

I was disappointed yesterday, too, by Mayor Mark Stodola and Smith's assurances that the Interstate 30 concrete river project holds no peril for MacArthur Park and the arts center. Of course it does. And this was the sure tipoff that chamber of commerce forces are behind this effort, because that group has urged the highway department to keep pouring the concrete, without concern for neighborhood division. This was a perfect time for the strong mayor to say that, while the I-30 project was inevitable in some form, our CITY leaders (as opposed to people with suburban interests foremost) would be working to look for better entrances to the city from the freeway, to protect every square inch of park from further intrusion and would also be working for an innovative connection (maybe park and a parkway) at Ninth Street between the Arts Center neighborhood and the reawakening territory on the east side of the freeway.

I know that I hope in vain for transparency and creative thinking. That is not how Little Rock does business. The public pays. The Arkansas Freeway Department pours concrete. The Arkansas Arts Center will still be controlled by elite insiders. If you want to play, you'll need to know the phone numbers of whoever appointed the Committee for Arts and History and whoever will decide what work gets done with the public's money and how much is a suitable tribute from private sources.

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