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Community center plans developing

White Hall adopted a 2 percent sales tax on prepared food in 1997 with the revenue pledged toward a community center. Fifteen years later plans for a community center are starting to take shape and move forward.

However, the $3.5 million generated by the “hamburger tax” held in reserve is not adequate to build what residents said they want in a center in a survey conducted earlier this year.

While McClelland Consulting Engineers Inc. of Little Rock and architect Fred Reed of Pine Bluff developed plans, the city cleared a large tract southeast of Dollarway and Hoadley roads. Timber was cut from the site and a topographical survey was conducted of the rolling acreage.

“This is a project that is a major undertaking,” Mayor Noel Foster acknowledged Monday.

Foster and several aldermen have visited half a dozen municipality owned and operated centers with aquatic parks this year.

“All of them we visited were either operated at a profit or at least breaking even, and all have aquatic features,” Foster said, adding that he was most impressed with Alma’s operation. Alma’s population in the 2010 U.S. Census was 5,419. White Hall’s population in the same census was 5,526.

Alma’s water park has a large pool, slides, a splash park, and features designed for the young and adults.

“If you just build a swimming pool, you’ll go broke,” one mayor was quoted as saying.

“We were told repeatedly you have to run it like a business,” Foster said, and that means features that draw from a large area.

“Our target area would be from Redfield south in Arkansas,” he added. “Some of the centers we looked at advertise with billboards to bring in church and youth groups, plus families.”

Foster’s vision for a White Hall aquatic park include a large pool that would include lap swimming, a splash park for younger children, giant slides, diving boards and rock climbing walls. For older residents with limited mobility, a “zero entry area would allow for water aerobics” and other activities.

“Obviously, you must have fees to offset the costs and rules for a safe environment,” he noted. “Every successful operation we saw had strict enforcement of rules and fees.

“That the key to keeping troublemakers and undesirables away,” he emphasized.

During the past decade city officials have discussed a “pay as you go” operation. It is time to change the approach and build what residents have asked for, Foster said.

Foster said he anticipates sometime in the first half of 2013 residents will be asked in a referendum to approved a bond issue to finance the community center and an aquatic park. Low interest rates in the bond markets make it feasible, he added, to build a first class community and aquatic center without levying a new tax.

A portion of the “hamburger tax” proceeds could be utilized to start development, he said, with the bonds retired over 15 years using a portion of the tax collections.

Picnic tables walking trails, volleyball and tennis courts could be added later, Foster said. “We want to get the maximum use of the property,” he added.

Tentative plans call for the community center to include a multi-purpose gymnasium, elevated walking and banquet rooms “available at a reasonable fee.”

“It was reassuring to Aldermen Ken Smith and David Beck saw that it can be done,” Foster said.

In early 2013 plans should be ready to submit to the Advertising and Promotion Commission for their observations and “we can move it forward.”

If voters approved a bond issue, development on the center could begin .in the summer and hopefully be completed in the spring of 2014. The aquatic park will take longer, but possibly be open in 2014.

“We learned we can’t afford an indoor pool,” Foster said. “We’ve looked at it from every angle.”

Fayetteville, Springdale and Prairie Grove have also learned from Alma’s success and are in various stages of building water parks, Foster added.

“I want our aquatic park to have something for everyone,” Foster said.