Mayor Mark Stodola was successful today in persuading the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission to support a new 2-cent hotel tax to pay for renovation and expansion of the Arkansas Arts Center and renovation of the MacArthur Museum of Military History. The tax would raise, by bond issue, $37.5 million dollars, a sum that Arkansas Arts Center Director Todd Herman said would be matched dollar for dollar by private contributions.
Max revealed the mayor’s plan to help the Arts Center, which Herman said could lose accreditation if it does not make long-delayed improvements to its storage and climate control system, on the Arkansas Blog yesterday. Stodola said today he has been working on a way to keep the Arts Center, which he called a “tremendous cultural icon,” in Little Rock since earlier in the year, when the Arts Center Foundation approached North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith about a city tax there that would move the Arts Center to the north shore.
The third LRCVB cent on the hotel tax, which is now 13 percent, would go to Arts Center and MacArthur Museum improvements; the fourth cent would be levied for park use, as state law requires. By imposing the two cents, the Advertising and Promotion Commission’s taxing limit on hotels would be reached.
Stephan McAteer, director of the MacArthur Museum, said the 1840 building had been “fortunate” when it was hit by a tornado several years ago because insurance meant it could repair its leaky roof. The HVAC system at the museum is 25 years old, the porches “are in deplorable condition” and the building “has never seen a significant renovation,” he said. He said the museum has drawn visitors from all 50 states and 60 countries.
Should the Arts Center lose accreditation, Herman said in response to questions by Commissioners Pamela Smith and Philip Tappan, it would be a “black eye” that would limit the facility’s ability to attract exhibitions. Besides the storage and climate control needs, the theater has broken and worn seating. The lighting in the galleries is obsolete. The HVAC system needs to be upgraded. There is no electric generator, which Herman said discourages international exhibitions. He said a new building, with exciting architecture, would enliven the city. The new building would reorient the Arts Center’s now uninviting entrance to one that makes use of MacArthur Park: “The Arkansas Arts Center looks inward,” Herman said, presenting a windowless facade. “We want to embrace the the park.”
Commission Chair Capi Peck noted that the Commission had discussed the Robinson Center project for years before deciding to commit tax receipts to its renovation. “We’re being asked to do this very quickly. I didn’t know [about the project] until I saw Max Brantley’s blog.” She said the city needs to create other funding mechanisms that don’t burden the hotel and restaurant industries. She also expressed worry that that the Arts Center and MacArthur Museum would be getting special treatment at the expense other deserving entitles, like the Museum of Discovery and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. “There are not any other viable options,” Stodola responded, and noted that The Rep, which he said was his favorite non-profit, was private rather than a city facility, which the Arts Center and the MacArthur Museum are.
Commissioner Larry Carpenter, the owner of the Hilton Inn Presidential, said his phone was “ringing off the hook” about the proposed tax increase. He said wise use of the tax dollars is not “black and white,” and reminded the commission that he had almost voted against the $73.5 million renovation of the Robinson Center, also being paid by the hospitality tax, because he thought the city should build new (“Next to your hotel, right?” Peck quipped).
Carpenter was especially concerned that the tax would put an end to the proposal to build a sports facility to attract basketball and other tournaments to Little Rock. Stodola told Carpenter that sports were already the biggest revenue generator in the city and “maybe we need to put more focus on cultural” draws. He said the sports facility might duplicate the State Fair’s master plan for growth.
Despite their concerns, the board vote was 6 for and one abstention on the resolution, which calls for a special election on the issuance of capital improvement bonds. (Smith abstained, she said, because she is new to the board.) The resolution will now go to the City Board of Directors for approval. Should the bond issue fail at the ballot box, the tax would still be levied, with revenues from one cent going to the LRCVB and the other to the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department.
After the meeting, the mayor noted that the hoteliers would benefit by an increase in the tax, because they would be able to keep 3 percent.