City officials hear update on horse arena project

The land survey has been completed, site preparation is underway and the deed has been filed for property that has been donated to the city of El Dorado make way for the construction of a new facility to host equine events.

The next steps in the development of South Arkansas Expo Center are to complete a topographic survey, assemble a bid package and put an operation and management structure in place for the South Arkansas Expo Center.

Robert Edmonds, director of public works, provided an update on the project, saying that bids are expected open within the next several weeks.

In June, the El Dorado Works Board and the El Dorado City Council approved a funding request of nearly $3.7 million to build the SAEC.

The EWB oversees the El Dorado Works sales tax sales tax initiative that directs revenue from a one-cent city sales tax toward economic development, municipal infrastructure and quality-of-life projects.

Supporters of the project -- which include SAEC committee and board of directors -- approached the EWB in May with an overview of the project, which, board member Gary Sewell said, had been ongoing for about 15 years.

Members of the group, which is made up of city and Union County residents, compete in equine sports -- including barrel racing, team penning and rodeos -- and travel to other states in the region to attend the events, Sewell told the EWB.

"We travel because we do not have a place locally where we can have these events," he said.

He pointed to horse arenas and other such facilities in the region, including Magnolia, Monticello, Texarkana, Little Rock and Ruston and Monroe, both of which are in North Louisiana.

The arenas in Magnolia and Monticello are part of college agricultural and athletic programs at Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

The closest such facility to El Dorado is 35 miles away in Magnolia; however, the facility is not available to rent to the public, Sewell noted.

He said the North Louisiana Exhibition Center is available to rent and is booked each weekend.

"And we feel like we can book this facility every weekend of the year," he said, later adding that the Ruston facility is being used as a template for the SAEC.

The committee commissioned an economic impact study from Dr. Jacob Manlove, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Arkansas State University and presented the findings.

According to the study, the SAEC is projected to pump $2.6 million into the local economy each year.

Sewell explained that the number is a low-spend estimate and "the high number" is nearly $5 million a year.

The scope of the project is broken into two phases, the first of which calls for the construction of "a modern equine arena ... with parking, ample seating, (a) public address area, horse stables, restrooms concessions and many other amenities."

Phase two focuses on expansion, with the potential to add a playground, walking paths, riding trails, a food court and hook-ups for recreational vehicles.

Sewell said the center would also support, promote and provide opportunities for youth agricultural programs, such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America, in local schools and the Union County Cooperative Extension Office -- including the agricultural department at El Dorado High School, which is undergoing an expansion with new facilities, equipment and curricula.

A local expo center would also help to develop equine sports programs for area youth, he said, adding that the El Dorado School District and UCCEO are onboard with the project and have offered input, including a suggestion to build classrooms for the center.

Sewell and the SAEC committee returned to the EWB in June and presented a formal request of $3.69 million from the El Dorado Works tax revenue to fund the construction of the arena.

As he had done in May, Sewell noted that the request did not include costs for land acquisition or site preparation.

Sewell donated more than 20 acres of land on Arkansas 335/Del-Tin Highway, approximately five miles west of El Dorado, on which to build the expo center

The property is just under a mile south of U.S. 82 and sits on the east side of the Del-Tin Highway.

Union County agreed to handle site prep, including clearing, grubbing and leveling.

Preliminary renderings include a 2,500-seat arena with space to double bleacher-capacity in the future to accommodate larger events.

Following lengthy discussions, during which EWB members asked plenty of questions, in May and June, the EWB signed off on the funding request, with the caveat that the SAEC committee come up with cost estimates for two options -- the initial proposal and options that include larger classrooms, seating capacity, concessions and additional restrooms, as recommended by EWB treasurer Sara Coffman.

Coffman noted that she was among the first female students to join Future Farmers of America and she was part of an effort to build an expo center in Glen Rose, Texas.

"I'm excited that this may happen. There just needs to be a lot of heartfelt thoughts by all of us to get this to happen," Coffman said.

During the EWB meeting in June, Mayor Paul Choate said the facility would be enveloped into the city parks' system.

"Maintaining it won't be a problem. We have all the infrastructure for that. One thing we will probably want to look at and that is finding somebody that has the skill set necessary to actually manage (the expo center)," Choate said.

He added that there have been ongoing conversations about possibly hiring a city parks and recreation manager as the city's parks' system grows.

Choate also said that water and wastewater infrastructure are already in place near the site.


Edmonds reported Monday that Union County has cleared most of the trees from the property and is working to clear brush and move topsoil from the spot where the SAEC is going to sit.

"We're working on a topography survey now so that we can see how we need to rearrange some of that soil that's on the property to make that thing work," he said. "The county is going to put the property on grade."

On Sept. 7, he told members of the El Dorado City Council that there had been some questions about how the facility will be designed and bid.

The arena, parking lot and a portion of the proposed RV sites are a part of the base bid and alternate bids will include horse stalls, additional RV spaces and larger classrooms and concession stands, Edmonds explained.

Council Member Frank Hash asked if the facility will be treated as a city park.

"I think the plan is to put that in the parks system. It will be part of the parks and recreation system," Edmonds replied.

Hash also inquired about who will be responsible for bookings at facility and Edmonds said there have been talks among city officials to include a part-time position in the city's 2024 budget and hire someone to book events for the expo center.

"Is there going to be a construction manager for the project?" Hash asked.

Edmonds said Douglas Stanton Architects is designing the facility and putting together the bid package, adding that the firm is experienced in municipal projects.

He also explained that the SAEC board of directors founded and developed the idea for the project and the city is responsible for construction and "day-to-day" operations of the facility.

Hash pointed to the $3.7 million funding request and asked if the amount will cover "the whole shebang."

Edmonds said the amount will likely cover the base-bid projects and the committee would have to return to the EWB for any additional funding for the alternate bids.

He said the city will have firm numbers once the project is bid.

Hash also had questions about the deed for the property that was donated by Sewell, noting that the terms of the deed call for the site to be used for the expressed purpose of a multipurpose equine/horse arena.

The deed stipulates that if such functions cease on the property, then the deed is voided and the property, including any improvements, additions, etc., reverts back to the grantor, Sewell.

Edmonds said such arrangements are common among municipalities, explaining that a similar deal is in place for the use of Memorial Stadium, which is owned by city and is leased to the El Dorado School District for a nominal fee.

"If somebody (suddenly) comes in and say(s), 'Well, we're not going to do this no more,'" then everything we've invested out there goes back to Mr. Sewell," said Hash.

"Well, I think at that time, if we're not going to do anything out there anymore, then it shouldn't matter to us, to be honest with you," Council Member Buddy McAdams replied.

"Well, it should. You have ($3.7 million) already on the table ... If we don't have a full, guarantee warranty on that property, it should be fixed," Hash insisted.

Chiming in, Council Member Willie McGhee cited the need to "have someone watching out for our interest."

McGhee and Hash pointed to past issues that arose with lease-purchase property deals --including with the Murphy Arts District and Therma-Flite, who formerly manufactured screw heat exchangers for municipal sludge dryers from a building that was erected by the city on Champagnolle Road.

"I'm just telling you, we get bit every time and the big things we don't seem to lock down, but the little things, we want the (T's) crossed and the I's dotted," said McGhee. "I just don't understand that and we ought to be covering our citizens' taxpayer dollars."

He also said he hopes the council receives weekly or bi-weekly updates as the project unfolds.

City Attorney Robert Rushing reiterated Edmonds's earlier point that property donations to the city commonly come with stipulations on how the property is to be used and a reversion clause.

Hash again pointed to the Therma-Flite facility, which was built by the city for the use of the company's manufacturing operations.

Therma-Flite later purchased the 40,000- square-foot building, which included office space, and the 16 acres on which it sat for $750,000 in an early buyout of its lease agreement with the city.

Therma-Flite set up shop in El Dorado in 2012 and shuttered operations in early 2016.

Plans to reopen never materialized.

"It was a different set of circumstances but still, you and I both warned the council over and over again that that at that time that thing was going sour and there was no heed and we lost it," Hash told Edmonds.

"This is some bull stuff, period!" Hash continued."I don't think this is a good-faith deed."

Edmonds said bids on the SAEC project will likely open in mid-November, telling Hash, "So, you've got some time to address some of those concerns."

Choate said the deed is intended to protect the donor of the property.

"If we do what we are planning on doing, we'll be fine. We will put a property into use within the park system and once we've done that, there's no clawback on it," said Choate.

Hash pressed the issue, saying the city should be able to remove its investments from the property in the event of a reversion.