Leslie Peacock has news on Rock Candy about the study of a potential move of the Arkansas Arts Center to a new location on the riverfront in North Little Rock.
In short, yes, it’s among possibilities being studied.
Though no formal announcement has been made, our reporting has found that private interests — likely including people associated with the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation, owners of the center’s art collection, and the Stephens financial empire, long major supporters of the Arts Center — have done polling on a North Little Rock sales tax increase to provide some public money for what Mayor Joe Smith has said could be a multi-building and multi-agency arts development downtown between Main Street and the Verizon Arena. Smith has said he envisions a major visitor lure built with public support and also significant private donations. The Stephens Inc. ownership and executives and perhaps the
Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, its assets coincidentally created by a media corporation purchase years ago by Jack Stephens, have been mentioned as potential matching sources.
Today, Rock Candy reports on an informational report on our reporting to the Arts Center Board of Trustees, a group appointed by the city of Little Rock to oversee the city-owned building in MacArthur Park.
In short, Center director Todd Herman details the inadequacy of the existing facility. The Foundation, I happen to know, has long had concerns about conservation of the collection and storage space. Bottom line:
In general, because of a series of additions over the decades, the facility no longer functions optimally in terms of efficiency and staff/visitor experience. From this analysis the Arts Center Foundation felt we had a duty to evaluate our physical facility options including consideration of a new facility.
Herman says the study is in its early stages and no decisions have been made.
What Little Rock and North Little Rock decide in the weeks and months ahead will be critical. Many supporters of the Arts Center have long believed the city hasn’t adequately supported the institution (It is contributing about $500,000 this year.) The North Little Rock plan would provide $60 million toward a facility, paid by a 10-year bond issue, in one scenario Smith outlined to me.
To date, Little Rock’s response to Smith’s work on the idea has been first to complain about North Little Rock violating a long-held understanding that the cities wouldn’t compete for each other’s institutions. The Arkansas Repertory Theatre and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra have also been mentioned as potential participants in the North Little Rock idea.
Smith has promised results of the private poll when he has them. On that, he’ll base his own decision on how to proceed. My partially educated guess is that they’ll show some, if less than overwhelming, support for a tax dedicated to a downtown showcase and also to public safety needs, the criteria Smith prefers. But polling for a tax for the new baseball stadium was only slightly inclined in favor of tax, I’ve been told, and it was approved by voters.
The shape of this idea — once supported by architectural drawings — and the ability of Smith to build an election coalition — would be important. Little Rock, meanwhile, must figure a way to move more quickly and specifically than typical to show it wants to do as much, or perhaps bid the institutions farewell. A financial commitment would be hard for a city already hard-pressed financially, unless it was ready to attempt to tap another penny of hamburger tax, only recently raised to pay for the Robinson Center renovation.
A major new arts complex in the city of the center would benefit all, though inevitably politicians on either side of the river wouldn’t view it as a 50-50 deal.