Public wi-fi, auditorium parking improvement funding on Council's agenda

El Dorado City Council members will consider three funding requests, one for a long overdue project, when they convene for a regular meeting at 5 p.m. today in the Council Chamber of City Hall.

The opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance will begin at 4:55 p.m.

Greg Downum, chairman of the El Dorado Works Board, is expected to present three funding requests that were approved by the board late last month.

The EWB administers the city's one-cent sales tax of the same name. The tax is dedicated to economic development, municipal infrastructure and quality-of-life projects.

If the board approves a funding request, the request is then forwarded to the city council for a vote.

On Jan. 31, Council Member Vance Williamson, who chairs the city's Finance Committee, presented two funding requests to repave and re-stripe the parking lot of the El Dorado Municipal Auditorium ($237,000) and to add and enhance Wi-Fi capabilities in all city parks, the El Dorado-Union County Recreation Complex and downtown El Dorado ($260,619.47).


The latter project was a part of Mayor Paul Choate's campaign platform.

Choate, who took office Jan. 1, pledged to "work to secure public access to free Wi-Fi."

Williamson explained that funding from the El Dorado Works tax will cover equipment and installation for the Wi-Fi network.

The $18,000 monthly Internet and licensing fee will be paid out of the city's general fund, said Williamson.

He also said the network's reach will extend to areas that surround the parks and other locations.

City parks include Bodenhamer Skate Park, Lions Club Park and Municipal Golf Course, Mattocks, McKinney, Mellor, Mitchell, Mosby, Neel, Oakhurst and Old City.

Most of the city's public parks are located in residential neighborhoods and some residents nearby may be able to access the public Wi-Fi network from their homes, Williamson said.

EWB members had plenty of questions about the project.

Sara Coffman, EWB treasurer, asked if the network will require a password and Williamson said a password will not likely be required for public access.

"How secure will the network be?" EWB member Craig Mobley asked.

Williamson said the public network will come with firewall protection.

EWB member Andre Singleton inquired about a timeline for installation and Williamson said he did not know.

He said a few electrical utility poles will have to be erected in some locations, noting that such work typically does not take very long.

EWB member Mumtaz MF asked about the speed of the service and Williamson said he was not sure but there have been discussions about setting a timer for users who may be engaged in an application, such as gaming, that takes up "a lot of speed."

Choate said he was looking for a speed of "100 up and 100 down" and a test he ran in his office came in with a speed of "400 up and 400 down."

"Now, when you start sharing multiple locations, you know what's going to happen," he said.

Downum asked if each park would have its own allocated speed and Williamson said yes, noting that larger parks may have more than one speed.

"You were talking about kicking people off and you have to log back in, do you know how long before it kicks you off?" Singleton asked.

Williamson said he did not know.

Downum noted that the EWB and city council approved a funding request from Main Street El Dorado in 2021 to help install ambient sound in downtown El Dorado.

He said the project included Wi-Fi and was covered, in part, by $37,110 from the El Dorado Works tax, which was used for equipment and installation.

MSE pays the $10,000 monthly user fees.

Coffman said the Wi-Fi connects to the ambient sound system downtown.

"It's involved with their stereo. If you open it up citywide, then it would interfere with what they're doing," she said.

"Is there an opportunity to consolidate those services and have both of these applications use the same Wi-Fi so we don't have to incur this $18,000 or is there an opportunity to expand what's there and eliminate the other?" asked Downum.

Williamson said he would check into the matter.

The EWB approved the funding request that included a caveat to that effect to potentially cut costs.

Auditorium parking lot

The board also voted in favor of the $237,000 request to improve the auditorium parking lot, a project for which many in the community have asked for years, as noted by Williamson.

"That's something that has been in horrible shape for decades. For the last several yeas, there's been quite a bit of drainage work on the (west side of the auditorium) and the parking lot has been used as a staging area (by contractors) and it's becoming in very bad disrepair," he explained.

Williamson said the city is aiming to complete the parking lot improvements before the 49th annual Arkansas Governor's Conference on Tourism, which will be held in El Dorado Feb. 26 - 28.

The city will be a first-time host for the conference.

Contract for services

Also included in Downum's presentation today is the renewal of the city's annual contract for services with the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce.

Per the contract, the chamber serves as the economic development arm of the city.

Kaitlyn Rigdon, economic development project manager for the chamber, said the scope of services that are provided by the chamber include planning, marketing, advice and counsel to the city about such topics as job recruitment, development and retention.

The chamber also maintains an office for economic and industrial development, she said.

Bill Luther, chamber president and CEO, said the chamber works closely with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, noting that the AEDC requires a designated individual and single point of contact in each county in the state.

Luther released some details about an active project, saying the chamber is working with the AEDC to woo a European timber company to El Dorado.

He said the AEDC had intended to shift the company to another location in Arkansas due to the lack of a suitable site in El Dorado.

Luther said community leaders came together to purchase property and Union County kicked in $30,000 to pay for environmental surveys.

Work is also ongoing to put together a recruitment package, which will call for water and wastewater infrastructure and other work to ready the site, said Luther.

He said the project will be divided into two phases.

Phase one will include building a manufacturing facility and office space to house the company's headquarters and hiring 150 - 200 employees with an average wage of $24 -- all within a timeline of five to seven years.

The second phase would expand production, add 75 employees and begin within three years after phase one is initiated.

"The company is likely to make a decision in the next six months," Luther said, adding that El Dorado has a good shot at landing the bid.

Greg Withrow, of the Union County Industrial Board, gave EWB members a heads-up, saying that the chamber plans to ask for an increase in the city's contract for services in 2024.

The contract has been funded at the same level of $45,000 for the last six years and Withrow said the chamber is looking into "reasonable" rates for a cost-of-living adjustment.

He noted that in 2021, the chamber requested an additional $10,000 in the city contract.

At the time, Luther explained that while chamber staff members dedicated more time to serving the city's economic development interests in 2020, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic slowed overall activity for much of the year, including fundraising efforts.

As a result, the chamber fell short of its fundraising goals and income projections.

Luther asked the city for a $10,000 boost to help offset some of the revenue shortfall and to cover additional work that the chamber put in on behalf of the 2020 contract.

The EWB agreed to fund half of ask, under the proviso that chamber return in mid-2021 with a report so that EWB members could evaluate the potential for approving the other $5,000.

However, the EWB's consideration was not necessary because the chamber received a loan from the federal Paycheck Protect Program.

Repayment of the loan was later waived.

Luther said on Jan. 31 that he is often asked why the city's contract calls for a higher funding level than the county's annual contribution of $30,000.

"The Union County Industrial Board supplies the building (chamber office) and keeps up with maintenance,"

He said the county also paid $16,000 to replace the HVAC system last summer in the chamber office.

"So, the county contributes in a lot more ways than just cash-money services," he said.

Entertainment district

In other business, the council will hear another pitch as a part of the city's preparations for the governor's conference.

Beth Brumley, executive director of Main Street El Dorado, and Pamela Griffin, president and CEO of the Murphy Arts District, are on the agenda to request special hours for the city's entertainment district during the conference.

The entertainment district, which was established in 2019, permits the public consumption and carrying of alcoholic beverages -- including mixed drinks, beer and wine -- within the boundaries of the district.

The district encompasses a nine-block area that is roughly bordered by Oak, Hill, Pony and Cleveland streets in downtown El Dorado.

The boundary is marked near crosswalks in the designated areas.

Per the city ordinance, the open-carry allowance is active from noon until 2 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Brumley said MSE and MAD plan to ask the city for special hours, as allowed in the ordinance, to open the entertainment district during the governor's conference, noting that entertainment activities have been planned for attendees downtown.