The Little Rock Advertising and Promotions Commission voted Tuesday to increase the hotel tax in Little Rock by two cents to raise $37.5 million dollars to fund a renovation and expansion of the Arkansas Arts Center and MacArthur Park facilities.
The measure must now go before the city board. If the board approves the tax increase, it will take a vote by Little Rock residents to issue bonds.
Speaking to the commission, Todd Herman, executive director of the arts center, told the commissioners that if this initiative was fully approved, the center would undertake a private capital campaign to match the funds. That would bring the total project to roughly $70 million.
“Our accreditation is in danger if we don’t make these upgrades,” Herman said.
He said in 2006 the center’s accreditation was tabled, citing HVAC issues and storage problems. Those have not been addressed. They are up for reaccreditation in 2016 and believe they might not get it if these issues are not handled by then. “It’s a black eye for the institution,” he said. “But more importantly, it limits our ability to get exhibits. Accreditation tells other institutions we meet certain standards. They aren’t very willing to send millions of dollars of art to a building that cannot meet those standards.”
Several commissioners raised questions about “tax fatigue” on the hotel industry in the city and questioned if 30-year bonds were the best way to fund this project. About 40 members of the hotel industry in the audience murmured in agreement to the sentiment. But hotelier Larry Carpenter said ultimately he was willing to let the voters decide if they wanted the tax increase.
Little Rock has a hotel tax of 13%. Mayor Mark Stodola, who brought the resolution to the commission, said an increase to 15% would be below Kansas City at 18%, Nashville at 16% and Chattanooga at 17.25%.
“There is a need for vastly improved facilities if we are going to retain these cultural icons,” Stodola said.
He told his fellow commissioners that this is “the only viable option” to raise the needed funds.
If fully approved, the funds would pay to improve what MacArthur Museum officials called the “deplorable condition” of the porches that surround the building as well as upgrades to the boiler/chiller system and the sprinkler fire protection system. It would also cover other renovations to other parts of the 175-year-old building the commission was told had never seen any significant renovation. The Arkansas Arts Center would use funds to update the HVAC and storage situation immediately. In addition, the center would improve the children’s theater and art classrooms. It would also rework the exterior space to better integrate MacArthur Park into the campus with a sculpture garden, walking paths and gathering places.
“Great architecture attracts people,” said Herman. “Right now the Arts Center basically turns its back on the park and looks inward. We want to create spaces that pull people from the outside in.”
Based on the election schedule, for voters to decide on the bond issue, the measure needs to go before the city board by Dec. 9, which is 60 days before the Feb. 9 special election date. Stodola did not make a prediction about the board vote, but believes the overall reception would be positive. He said he had seen private polling by the Arts Center Foundation that he characterized as a “very strong favorability” by Little Rock voters toward the project.
In December 2013, voters approved by almost 75% a measure to dedicate the existing 2% A&P tax for the repayment of bonds to fund renovations to Robinson Auditorium.