The Advertising and Promotion Commission voted unanimously Friday to recommend that the White Hall City Council call a referendum on a proposed bond issue to help finance a $7.5 million community center and aquatic park.
“It’s not a senior center or youth center, but a community center,” Mayor Noel Foster emphasized. “We want to build something that is affordable, yet practical.”
The center would include a full-size basketball gym, classrooms, three large meeting rooms and an elevated walking track, he added.
A $4 million municipal bond issue to begin construction would be retired with revenues from the 2 percent sales tax on prepared food adopted in 1997, Commission Chairman James “Jitters” Morgan said.
Foster said $3.5 million generated by the “hamburger tax” held in reserve is not adequate to build what residents asked for in a 2012 municipal survey. A pool or water feature rated high with 88 percent of the respondents to the survey.
The commission recommendation should go to the council Feb. 19, with a tentative date in May for the referendum, the mayor added. He emphasized that the commission did not recommend a new tax, but to pledge revenues from an existing tax to pay for the improvements.
A large municipally owned tract southeast of Dollarway and Hoadley roads has been cleared for the project. Architect Fred Reed of Pine Bluff developed plans for the 24,000-square-foot community center, while McClelland Consulting Engineers Inc. of North Little Rock worked on plans for the aquatic park.
The community center could be completed in spring 2014 if the plan is adopted by voters, while the aquatic park would not be finished until the summer of 2014, Foster said.
“We don’t want to overbuild a building, but something that is functional and serves our needs,” he added.
Aldermen David Beck and Ken Smith, who serve on the commission, and Foster toured a number of municipality-owned and -operated centers with aquatic parks last year.
Alma’s operation in Northwest Arkansas was what impressed them the most, Smith said, adding that operating a community center with just a swimming pool is equal to “owning a money pit.”
Foster said Alma and White Hall are almost identical in size, yet Alma has been developed “into a destination” with its aquatic park, drawing visitors from a wide area of Arkansas and Oklahoma.
The mayor said he envisions a White Hall aquatic park to include a large pool that would include lap swimming, a splash park for younger children, giant slides, diving boards and even rock climbing walls. For older residents with limited mobility, a “zero-entry area would allow for water aerobics” and other activities.
“You’ve got to build it like an attraction,” he added, with “something for all ages.
“Fees to offset the costs and rules for a safe environment,” must come into play, he emphasized. “Every successful operation we saw had strict enforcement of rules and fees. That’s the key to keeping troublemakers and undesirables away.”
Foster said one private Central Arkansas aquatic park charges $29 per person for daily admission, while he anticipates a charge of $8-$12 a day at White Hall.
“With reasonable fees, a safe environment and a marketing campaign, we could draw from a wide area,” the mayor said. “We are talking about people who will eat in our restaurants, buy gas here and shop with White Hall merchants.”
The aquatic park would employee 40-50 local youth on a part-time basis during the summer months, he added.
Areas of the proposed community center would be “available at a reasonable fee,” Foster added. Fees and utilizing volunteers to help staff the facilities would keep operational costs down.
“It is a major undertaking, but we can do it,” Foster said.