Less than a month after finalizing a “memorandum of intent” with the Arkansas Travelers for a proposed new stadium in North Little Rock, early voting begins there this Monday, July 25, on a two-year, 1 percent sales tax in the city to pay for the stadium.
Most of the proceeds from that tax (an estimated $28 million) would be used to finance the construction of the ballpark for the Travelers, a Class AA minor league baseball team that currently plays at Ray Winder Field in Little Rock. The remainder ($5 million) would be directed toward the enlargement and improvement of the Patrick Henry Hays Senior Center.
Hays, who is North Little Rock’s mayor, says the rush to a vote was necessary, because there was “no reason to stretch out the decision.” The special election is set for Aug. 9, although the early voting will take place during weekday hours at the William F. Laman public library at 2801 Orange St.
Several groups have expressed reservations or outright opposition to the tax proposal since June 28, the day the North Little Rock city coun-cil voted to authorize the special election.
The North Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police is against the ballpark tax because police have worked three years without a new contract and say the extra money would be better spent on improving public safety.
More cryptically, the North Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission at its July 13 meeting voted to endorse “the vision” of the new stadium but withheld its support for the tax that would make it a reality.
Jim Dailey, the mayor of Little Rock, also is warning voters that the new levy could jeopardize any effort to pass a county-wide tax that might be needed, citing jails as a critical priority.
“It does concern me that this tax proposal over there, if it is successful, makes it very difficult for any kind of a county proposal during the time this tax is in place,” Dailey said.
“I’m just laying the facts out on the table,” he continued. “I’m very comfortable with saying that it bothers me or concerns me about our priorities, and what it may be shutting the door on if it is successful. Hopefully the folks in North Little Rock will make a good judgment call.”
Asked to define what a “good judgment call” would be, Dailey replied, “I just think, hopefully based on the facts, that the voters over there will say, ‘OK, we think this is, at least for North Little Rock, this is the proper priority for us at the time.’ As long as they under-stand they’ve got firefighters who want pay increases. And if a jail shuts down it affects all of us on both sides of the river.”
The fast-approaching vote may prevent opponents of the tax from getting traction. Elections in August typically draw fewer voters because people are taking vacations or not paying as much attention to politics.
“It changes the election,” said Bill Paschall, a local public affairs consultant. “It makes it an election of turnout when you have it in a month that historically is a month that voters are not accustomed to voting in. . . . Some special elections have been designed to limit turnout. If you have a population whose mood is anti-tax, [a low turnout] would probably be a detriment. If the mood is ‘Let’s do what is good for our city,’ it may be a positive.”
Terry Hartwick, the president of the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and chair of the committee advocating on behalf of the tax, denied that the election date was designed to suppress turnout or deny opponents the chance to organize effectively. Rather, he said that good polling numbers were the main motivation for holding the election as quickly as possible.
“People didn’t care if [the tax] was one year or two years, just as long as it stopped,” Hartwick said of the poll results. “State law says we can call a [special] election after 45 days. There was enthusiasm there, we’re in the middle of baseball season, the kids are out of school. If we wait any longer, we’re getting into football season.”
According to Hays, the deal between the city and the Travelers is not etched in stone.
“It’s the framework for a lease agreement,” Hays said of the document signed by him and Bill Valentine, the Travelers’ executive vice president. “I don’t perceive it as a binding contract of any sort. It is a statement of principles, the basic cornerstones the lease-hold house will be built on.”
Nevertheless, the document is very specific. The city would own the stadium, and the Travelers would rent, occupy and operate the new stadium for 20 years, with an option to extend the lease for two successive five-year terms. Their rent would be equal to 50 percent of the amount by which operating revenues exceed operating expenses.
Therefore, the rent received by the city would depend upon the Travelers’ financial performance.
Proponents of the tax aren’t worried about that.
“There is little concern that operating expenses won’t be covered by revenue,” Hays said. “Revenue covers operations for the Travelers now, and we are expecting increased attendance plus suites.”
Hartwick estimates that the new stadium will annually generate between $3 million and $3.5 million from admission fees, concessions, ad-vertising, suite rentals, and parking.
The stadium would encompass between seven and eight acres of an 11-acre site just east of the Broadway bridge and north of Riverfront Drive. The property is currently owned by Little Rock financier Warren Stephens, and if the sales tax is approved, he will donate the portion of the land needed for the ballpark and retain title to the rest.
Frank Thomas, a spokesman for Stephens who also is part of the Travelers’ executive committee, said that there are no concrete develop-ment plans for the remaining three to four acres adjoining the stadium, although early ideas included constructing a multi-use office building on one corner of the property and a condominium high-rise on another.
North Little Rock owns an additional seven acres on the west side of the Broadway bridge and four acres directly south of Riverfront Drive that could be used in association with the stadium. Hays expects that land initially to be used for parking (“maybe even a parking deck”), but that commercial and retail developments are also possibilities.
Dailey said that he and Hays met with Stephens about the ballpark plan, and that Stephens is eager to see it happen.
“Warren has a great interest in this and was calling a lot of people,” Dailey said. “I heard indirectly that he was really pushing to make the deal work. I never had personal pressure put on me, though. In fact, he understood pretty strongly and clearly where I stood. I have hundreds of citizens in Midtown and other parts of Little Rock saying, ‘Why don’t you save this thing and keep this here in Little Rock?’”
He continued: “I said months before that if I want to turn this into an emotional ‘keep the Travelers on the Little Rock side of the river,’ I could probably have groups of folks interested in a sales tax to save the Travelers. But I didn’t want to get into some sort of bidding war. We have done too many good things together over the last two years.”