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Council to consider several Works Board funding recommendations

Final 2020 budget resolution also on agenda; 2021 budget could come next month by Tia Lyons | July 21, 2021 at 8:30 p.m.

The El Dorado Works Board is expected to recommend three funding requests to the El Dorado City Council today.

The council will convene for a regular meeting at 5:25 p.m. in the Council Chamber of City Hall.

One of the requests will restructure a partnership between the city and South Arkansas Community College to operate and manage the El Dorado Conference Center.

Another will cap off more components of a master plan to improve city parks, and the third will help bring ambient sound to downtown El Dorado.

During a regular meeting July 13, the EWB vetted funding requests from SouthArk, the El Dorado Parks and Playgrounds Commission (EPPC) and Main Street El Dorado.

The EWB administers the city’s one-cent sales tax for economic development, municipal infrastructure and quality-of-life projects.

Funding requests that are approved by the EWB must go before the city council for consideration.

Conference center

The EWB last Tuesday approved a proposal from SouthArk that will switch up the funding-share model by which the El Dorado Conference Center (ECC) is operated and maintained.

The ECC is owned by the city and managed by SouthArk,

The multi-purpose facility includes a banquet hall with seating for 1,000 and theater seating for up to 2,500; five meeting rooms; and an in-house catering service, all of which share space with SouthArk’s bookstore, student union, administrative/student services offices and bistro.

The ECC opened in early 2011 and the city and college have maintained a lease agreement in which the college covers the first $300,000 of annual expenses and splits overages 50/50 with the city.

The entities also pay a pro rata share of any capital expenditures that exceed $10,000, as well as the $80,000 salary of the ECC executive director.

At the behest of former Mayor Frank Hash, the city council established a $1 million contingency fund for the conference center in 2012 to cover major repairs and maintenance issues.

The fund now has a balance of approximately $600,000.

The 10-year lease was set to expire June 30 and since April, the city and SouthArk have negotiated new lease options that were proposed by the college.

Greg Downum, chairman of the EWB, said the state had extended the contract by one month to allow more time for the city and college to hammer out a deal.

On April 14, SouthArk president Dr. Bentley Wallace told city officials that “new energy is needed” to promote the conference center “as the economic engine that it was designed to be.”

An extensive discussion ensued, during which city and SouthArk officials looked at costs and revenues, lease options, fair market value for the percentage of space that SouthArk uses in the 50,000-square-foot conference center and catering services.

“And as part of that, because of the economic development nature of it and the college’s relationship with the building, over those first 10 years of the lease, we found that the college was really absorbing an awful lot of operating costs associated with the conference center that were above and beyond what you might consider the college’s payment of rent,” Wallace told the EWB on July 13.

The lease option that was approved by the EWB includes, but is not limited to:

• A private donation of $150,000 per year for three years to create a position for and to cover the salary of a person to market the conference center throughout the region and identify its capabilities.

• SouthArk funding the first $175,000 of annual, operation and maintenance (O&M) expenses. If expenditures fall under $175,000, the balance rolls into the Conference Center Reserve Fund (contingency) fund.

• A city contribution of up to $60,000 in annual expenses over revenues. The city would split with the college 50% of expenses that exceed $235,000.

• If revenues exceed expenditures, the city and SouthArk would share the overage, pro rata, until the college recoups $175,000.

The city’s share and any other excess income would be placed into the reserve fund.

• Repairs of $5,000 or less will be treated as routine O&M.

If repairs exceed $5,000, they will be considered capital expenditures and will be split evenly between the city and college for up to $50,000 per year.

In excess of $50,000, SouthArk will maximize its contribution at $25,000 and the city will fully cover the rest.

The city would be able to deem any amount paid over $25,000 “as pre-payment for future obligations.”

The annual salary of the ECC director will continue to be split 50/50.

Wallace also explained that the in-house catering service — which, under the existing contract, must be used for catered events that are held in the conference center — has historically exceeded annual expenses by $65,000.

“We found some areas, like catering, that were not anywhere close to profitable. In fact, they were quite costly the way it was modeled,” Wallace said.

Downum agreed, saying that the profitability of the conference center has often been handicapped by the catering arrangement.

“We’ve heard from several individuals and several organizations that it was just cost-prohibitive to do it,” Downum said.

Per the proposed lease, SouthArk is moving toward on-call catering, using an approved list of area catering services, and hopes to have the new business model implemented by Dec. 31.

Users of the conference center would pay a fee based on the areas of the facility that they use, for instance the kitchen, and choose their own caterer from the approved list.

If approved by the council, the lease would be good for three years, with two, one-year options to extend.

Parks and playgrounds

The EPPC has gained more ground in its long-running quest to secure funding for a multi-phase plan to upgrade and improve city parks.

The plan has been under development since 2018 and has included public feedback and suggestions and four presentations to the EWB.

EWB members twice asked for additional information, more specific details and a priority list for projects — starting with the EPPC’s first presentation in December 2020 and the second in April.

The third time was the charm when the EWB voted in favor of more than $292,300 on June 22 for improvement projects that are centered around Lions Club Municipal Golf Course (LCMGC).

The total amount that was approved by the EWB was erroneously reported as $352,000 in the July 1 edition of the News-Times.

The package that was presented on June 22 by the EPPC included $51,872 for a new fairway mower and two utility carts for LCMGC; $43,280 to build to new basketball courts east of the existing court at LCMGC (the existing court at the entrance into Lions Club will be abandoned); and $160,000 to resurface the 2.25-mile walking/running trail encircles Lions Club, the Union County Fairgrounds and the El Dorado School District soccer fields — all totaling $255,052.

On June 24, the El Dorado City Council also signed off on the proposal.

“We asked them to prioritize the work across the city so that we could kind of work on it phases so the citizens of El Dorado can see some improvements and get some benefits from our tax dollars that we’ve collected,” Greg Downum, chairman of the EWB, explained to city council members.

The funding package that was approved by the EWB on June 22 included a new restroom, picnic table and water fountain to serve the basketball court and walking trail on the south end of Lions Club Municipal Golf Course.

On July 13, Downum said the three items were pulled from the request that was presented last month to the city council.

“As we were kind of finalizing some of the quotes, there were a couple of questions around a couple of elements of the proposal, specifically the bathrooms, the picnic tables and the water fountain,” he explained.

“So, just in the interest of trying to be as accurate as we can, after our last meeting (on June 22), I excluded those elements from what I took to the city council, just to make sure that the parks and playgrounds commission could provide a little more certainty for what those amounts are,” Downum continued.

Due to fluctuating prices on materials, equipment and shipping, the EWB previously approved funding that exceeded “the amount that the (EPPC) now needs” in two instances and in another, the board “under-appropriated” funding, Downum said.

EPPC member Alexis Alexander presented the revised funding requests, telling the EWB that equipment for the golf course and the new basketball courts had been ordered.

Alexander said the EPPC initially asked for $30,000 to cover the purchase and installation of the restroom with existing water and wastewater lines — an amount that represented installation costs over the purchase price of $21,377.

She said the bid was issued in February and the purchase price had since increased to $23,529.

Alexander also explained that installation costs will instead be covered by the Department of Public Works’ budget, as will the costs to install the new water fountain, which will come with a pet attachment.

The initial EPPC request for the water fountain was $6,200, which included installation. The commission modified the request to $5,540, factoring in freight costs.

Alexander said the cost of the picnic table had also increased from $865 to $958 and with factory and freight charges; the new total came to $1,572.

EWB member Avo Vartenian, who participated in the July 13 meeting via a phone call, expressed concern about the maintenance of the restroom.

Parks and playgrounds commissioners have said that public restrooms were among the top responses they received when soliciting feedback from local residents about park improvements.

Lions Club will serve as a pilot program to help direct plans to place restrooms in other city parks, the EPPC and EWB have said.

In response to Vartenian’s concerns, Alexander introduced Mike Lewis, the city’s parks and green space manager, who was in the audience.

“I know that there was some question about keeping it clean and working that and that is literally his job as parks manager to take care of all the parks,” Alexander said.

After further discussion, the EWB agreed to suggestions by board member and treasurer Sara Coffman to keep the funding amount intact for the restroom and water fountain and to boost funding for the picnic table to a maximum of $1,600 for a total of $37,800.

“I know it sounds kind of crazy but I know prices are going up every day and I’d hate for them to get going on it and all of a sudden, now something else costs more and it gives you that wiggle room,” Coffman said, referring to the restroom.

Ambient sound

The EWB will also present a request of up to $37,110 to assist with another project that has been in the works for at least three years.

Beth Brumley, executive director of Main Street El Dorado (MSE), originally approached the EWB on June 22 with a proposal for $42,110 that would cover the costs of a laptop computer, speakers, mounting equipment and labor for an ambient sound system that would cover the downtown square, particularly retail-heavy areas along Main Street between Cleveland and Hill avenues and Washington Avenue between Oak and Cedar streets.

The system would play music and capture the sounds of events that are going on around the downtown square, Brumley explained.

She said MAD is pitching in $10,000 of a $25,000 state grant that is earmarked for downtown revitalization projects and mini-grants to assist businesses with eligible improvement projects within the MSE footprint.

After some discussion, EWB members asked Brumley to reach out to the Murphy Arts District to determine if MSE could tap into an existing outdoor sound system that plays music throughout the day in the MAD entertainment complex, which is largely centered on Locust Street between Washington and Hill avenues.

Brumley told EWB members then that MSE had spoken with former MAD President and Chief Executive Officer Austin Barrow about the matter.

“He said we would not be able to tap into their system. I don’t know how MAD’s system works. It doesn’t work on the same antenna or mobile mixing system,” Brumley said.

She returned on July 10 with a similar answer, telling EWB members that she had spoken to MAD’s information technology team, who recalled the conversation with Barrow.

“The main thing that we could come up with is that they’re a hard-wired system so they’re directly wired to their speakers and that’s not a possibility for downtown,” Brumley said. “We have to be wireless because it would be impossible to go back and add all of the wiring to make wired and from that distance.”

Further, Brumley said she spoke with local contractor Lawrence Electric Company, who will handle the wiring and installation ($4,000) for the ambient sound system.

“He remembered it the same way and he said that’s absolutely why we couldn’t partner, that more equipment would be required to add to MAD’s music to make it work with the wireless for downtown,” she explained.

She also said such an arrangement would not be feasible because MAD plays many of its ticketed events over its sound system and expanding the sound beyond the MAD district could pose issues with artists’ contracts.

“Of course, they would lose ticketed money if it was playing for free downtown,” Brumley told EWB members.

AirNetix, a Georgia-based vendor, will provide the equipment for a StreetSounds wireless audio system and network ($37,110).

MSE would be responsible for monthly expenses, including licensing and Internet fees of $35 and $100, respectively.

The city of El Dorado has also signed off on the use of existing light poles downtown to install some of the equipment that is needed for the project, Brumley said.

On July 13, Coffman inquired about an anticipated completion date for the project and Brumley said MSE hopes to have the system installed by MusicFest and the fourth annual Airstreams on the Square, both of which are scheduled in October.

“We absolutely would love it in place by the holidays because that’s one of the biggest times of the year that it will be beneficial for downtown, to all our visitors and all of our businesses downtown,” Brumley said.

Other items

The city council is also expected to consider a resolution to approve and close out the 2020 city budget.

Council members received the budget adjustments during a Finance Committee meeting earlier this week.

City officials are awaiting a few requests for the proposed 2021 budget, which could be approved during the next regular meeting Aug. 5.

Council members will consider another proposed lease for a land donation from LanXess.

LanXess has offered property at the intersection of U.S. 82 and South West Avenue/Southfield Road for the city to relocate and build a new dog pound.

The existing pound is located at the City Shop on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Bill Luther, president and chief executive officer of the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce, is also on the agenda to provide report on the chamber’s contract with the city.

The city pays an annual contract for services of $45,000 for the chamber to serve as the city’s economic development arm.

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