A $60 million improvement plan for the Arkansas Arts Center, plus spending on MacArthur Park and the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History improvements, will be presented Tuesday to the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission.
The plan would require an additional two-cent sales tax (not one as I originally wrote) on hotel receipts in the city. Because the revenue would be pledged to a bond issue, the tax would have to go before voters, likely at a February special election. The tax first must be approved by the Advertising and Promotion Commission and then the Little Rock Board of Directors.
Mayor Mark Stodola, who outlined the plan for me this morning, said polling on the issue in Little Rock showed strong support for the tax increase, which would be paid only by city hotel visitors.
The city recently committed to $750,000 a year in maintenance spending for the Arts Center, which considered for a time an idea to relocate to North Little Rock and a $100 million new facility on the Arkansas River financed by a North Little Rock sales tax. North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith pulled back from the plan in the face of some tepid polling of North Little Rock voters and the Arts Center declared it was staying in Little Rock.
The current Little Rock hotel tax rate is 13 percent — a 6.5 percent state sales tax, a 1.5 percent city sales tax, a 1 percent county sales tax, a 2 percent state sales tax on tourist facilities and a 2 percent city advertising and promotion tax. Moving the rate to 15 percent would still leave it lower than many comparable cities. North Little Rock already assesses three cents on the city advertising and promotion tax allowed by law, but has a city sales tax a half-percent lower than Little Rock. The new tax in Little Rock would include a third cent on hotel sales and another penny dedicated solely to parks, which the law allows. It wouldn’t exhaust A&P taxation power. It could still put another penny on restaurant sales.
For example, some hotel tax rates from other cities: Memphis. 15.95; Oklahoma City. 13.88; Tulsa, 13.52; Dallas, 15; Austin, 15; Nashville, 13; St. Louis, 17.93; Wichita, 15.9; Birmingham, 17.5; Bentonville, 13.5; Fayetteville, 13.75; Montgomery, 14; Jackson, 10; Hot Springs, 12.5.
The Little Rock hotel tax, which raises about $1.25 million per year per penny currently, would finance a $34 million to $35 million bond issue, Stodola said. The money would go primarily to the arts center, which would pledge to raise the remainder of the $60 million project from private sources. About $1 million would be directed to renovation work at the military museum. The money also would provide for park landscaping improvements.
The mayor said the Arts Center leadership — a private Foundation provides monetary support and a board appointed by the mayor governs the city-owned building — are on board for the plan. A rough outline of the project with conceptual drawings has been prepared.
The move, in addition to cementing the Arts Center as a Little Rock facility, also cements it in MacArthur Park, a location that some Arts Center supporters have expressed reservations about. Stodola said he’s committed to further improvements in that neighborhood and emphasized to me his support, too, for an Interstate 30 plan that doesn’t deter recent growth of new development into derelict property on the east side of Interstate 30. The Arts Center sits on Ninth Street a couple of blocks west of the freeway.
The A&P Commission, in supporting the idea, would have to give up at least in the short-term on the idea of building a sports facility to attract basketball and similar tournaments to town. Stodola said strides were being made to use the State Fairgrounds for such a purpose and he remained committed to improvements in that part of town. Hotel operators might raise some questions about this; a sports facility was seen as a good sell for visitors.
The Commission meets at 3 p.m. tomorrow.
These are described as goals of the Arts Center Project: in prepared materials:
* Upgrade the building to current museum standards to retain accreditation. Drawings indicate a significant expansion of the building footprint.
* Create transitional and exterior spaces that embrace MacArthur Park and include sculpture gardens, walking paths and gathering places.
* Expand education programs, particularly space dedicated for classes.
* Improve visitor areas to be more welcoming and accessible.
* Grow the Arts Center and the MacArthur Park area as a “cultural anchor” in an expanding arts and entertainment district.
* Inspire the community and add to the economic vigor of the city.
I don’t have a figure yet on the size of the expansion, but renovations will be considerable too. A fact sheet lists the needs: The seats, carpet, light, sound and rigging in the children’s theater needs repair and costumes must be stored off-site. The museum school needs more space, better lighting and a better HVAC system. The museum lacks storage space and adequate climate control and needs better lighting. There’s only one elevator, access for disabled is limited, the current layout is confusing and some spaces are aesthetically unappealing or too small. The arts center needs a generator, more office space, more support space and a building design that welcomes visitors and embraces the park.
More to come, but that’s the big picture so far.