ASU Chancellor, Jonesboro Mayor Trade Tense E-Mails Over Convention Center Deal

There was some debate between Jonesboro city leaders and officials with Arkansas State University in regards to the construction of at least two conference centers in the town, according to emails obtained by Talk Business and Politics.

Talk Business and Politics on Tuesday requested copies of any and all correspondence between Arkansas State University and Jonesboro Mayor Harold Perrin about the projects.

ASU officials announced in February that they had been working with Missouri-based O’Reilly Hospitality Management on a project. Under the project, a 200-room Embassy Suites, a 40,000 to 50,000-square-foot conference center and a Houlihan’s restaurant will be built at the former ASU track and field complex.

The second project involves the Keller family of Effingham, Ill. The family, along with city officials, announced Aug. 28 that a 152-room Hyatt Place Hotel and Conference Center would be built along U.S. 63. Keller had previously worked with ASU on their project but it fell through. The land is where the former Arkansas Services Center is located.

Perrin has publicly supported the idea of a convention center in Jonesboro, citing its economic impact and the town’s close proximity to Memphis and Little Rock. He recently said his support of the idea was validated when the city hosted the Cal Ripken 10 and under baseball tournament. The tournament brought thousands of people to Jonesboro that week, with some teams and families having to stay in either Paragould or Trumann due to a lack of hotel space.

Perrin also has expressed his support for both projects.

“Increasing the number of conventions and visitors to the city will help retailers, restaurants and other hotels,” Perrin said in February about the O’Reilly project. “The impact on our city will be enormous, and we will do everything we can to support the efforts of Arkansas State and O’Reilly Hospitality.”

Perrin also expressed his support of the Keller project in August.

“This has been a long process, and I am happy to be moving this project to the next level. I am looking forward to working with Chuck (Keller) and his family in the monumental endeavor for the City of Jonesboro,” Perrin said.

EMAILS

According to the 22-page printout released by ASU officials, the discussions between the city and ASU on a project were detailed leading up to the Aug. 28 announcement on Keller. On Aug. 3, Perrin was scheduled to meet with ASU officials, officials with O’Reilly, Jonesboro chamber officials and others about the project.

On Aug. 27, at 2:33 p.m., Perrin sent an email to ASU-Jonesboro chancellor Dr. Tim Hudson. The email reads in full:

Dr. Hudson,
As you know, there has been a high level of interest by multiple development groups in working with the City of Jonesboro to build and operate a conference center here. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with all of the groups; and each one has had a tremendous vision for these projects. Any of them would be a great addition to our community.

I have said privately and publically, that with competing projects, I would be happy to work with any of the groups; but any assistance could only be provided to one center, and that whichever project came to us first with their approvals is where I would have to focus my time, energy and resources.

As a courtesy, I want to inform you that the Keller family has notified us in writing and in person that they have obtained the financing locally for their project. Mr. Keller and members of his family and company will be here next week with their site plan and begin working to announce a date for the groundbreaking.

I was asked to reiterate to you that Mr. Keller would welcome the opportunity to work with you as previously discussed for special rates for Arkansas State University, as well as preferred scheduling, etc., for the University in terms of facility or hotel usage needs. He is genuinely interested in being a strong supporter of our community and our university. I hope now that we have narrowed to a single project that we can all work together to make this a great win for the Keller family, the city and ASU! I will call you later this afternoon.

20 minutes later, Hudson responded. The email reads in full:

Mayor,
Are you saying that you will not follow through with providing assistance to Arkansas State regarding our plans to locate a hotel and conference center on campus as you have indicated in our various meetings, most recently in the ASU System office in Little Rock with Tim O’Reilly, Mark Young (Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO) and others? I am sure I have misunderstood your meaning as we have been accommodating your timing and tasked our staff at your request in order to provide you information so that we could finalize the potential investments and our ‘approvals.’

While I appreciate Mr. Keller’s interest in being a ‘strong supporter’ of our community, I would find it difficult to believe that any single project or investor could have the enormous positive impact on Jonesboro provided by Arkansas State. Our working relationship and the support the community receives from A-State has never been stronger (just look at the recent medical school locating in Jonesboro bringing millions of additional dollars to Jonesboro without any investment from the city) and holds the promise of a unique, symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship for a long time to come.

I look forward to discussing this with you at your earliest possible convenience. Let me know how I can help.

Tim

Talk Business & Politics has asked for more info from the Mayor’s office and has other questions outstanding about the project. This story will be updated or there will be a follow up story with more information.