The Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission voted today to buy the Cromwell Building at Markham and Spring for $3.35 million.
It will consolidate offices of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau already in the Cromwell Building and elsewhere. The Commission had a voice vote, but at least a couple of members were heard in opposition. Commisioners Philip Tappan and Warren Simpson were among those who’d raised questions about the sale. UPDATE: Gene Fortson joined those two on the losing side of a 4-3 vote, according to the Democrat-Gazette account.
The Commission had the right of first refusal on a sale of the building and matched the offer for the building by the Bank of England in July. The commission members had come under some pressure from lobbying in support of the bank’s promise to bring new jobs downtown and also against the idea of a city agency becoming a landlord. Other tenants will be sought to fill the building space when the Cromwell architecture firm vacates.
The purchase will be financed by revenue from the sales tax on hotel and restaurant sales, the so-called hamburger tax. Opposition to the purchase came, too, from some in hotel industry who’d prefer the tax revenue be spent on city promotion, not on real estate. The agency already owns parking decks, the River Market, Robinson Auditorium and portions of public spaces related to two downtown hotels, the Doubletree and the Marriott. Voters also recently sent a portion of the available burger tax revenue to pay for rebuilding of the Arkansas Arts Center.
The discussion today was on the benefits of owning. An analysis done for the Visitors Bureau said it would take about six years, including interests costs, before the expenditure would begin producing a positive return. The Bureau pays about $155,000 a year in rent now. It will cost about $551,000 a year to finance the purchase the first six years.
Gretchen Hall, director of the bureau, said she was convinced the investment was in the long-term interest of the bureau.
She said a critical part of the consideration was parking. The Bank of England’s offer wanted a guarantee of retaining the existing 82 parking spaces rented from the Visitors Bureau in the municipal garage across the state for 15 years at the current rate of $65 per space. The Visitors Bureau was reluctant to make such a long-term commitment on spaces now leased month to month. And the bureau envisions a need for the spaces, given existing commitments in the garage and the fact that the Robinson Auditorium renovation will soon be complete and the building back in use.
Mayor Mark Stodola has mentioned using a portion of the building for city police needs.
Paperwork on the closing should begin soon, Hall said.