City considering purchase of Spirit Homes for community center use

Originally published March 25, 2015 in the Log Cabin Democrat | Link to article

Conway is the largest city in Arkansas without a public pool, Mayor Tab Townsell told attendees of the Conway City Council committee meeting Tuesday night.

“We’re getting into shameful territory by us saying that,” he said.

His proposed solution – buying a long-sought-after piece of property on the city’s west side for an all-encompassing recreational venue.

For years, the city of Conway has looked into the idea of purchasing the old Spirit Homes property at Dave Ward Drive and McNutt Road for park or recreational use as a community center.

With a decrease in the property’s asking price five years after a failed deal, city aldermen are moving forward again in securing the 221,000 square-foot building, approving of a letter of intent to purchase the facility on 22 acres.

A unanimous vote Tuesday from the Conway City Council’s seven present aldermen will allow for a 15-day period for negotiations, as well as a period for public input during two meetings March 31 and April 7. Times and dates for the meetings have not been set.

The property’s asking price is $3.5 million. That is a drop from the $3.75 million agreement reached five years ago for the property. The deal fell through as a result of a legal issue.

“It’s a price that is marketing the building to move,” Townsell said. “If we are going to purchase it, now is the time to move or it’s going to be purchased, and more than likely divided up, farmed out with outparcels to different facilities.”

The legal issue surrounded the fact that the city was looking to ask Conway Corporation to buy the Spirit Homes facility.

As the city paid of costs for the Conway Expo Center and Fairgrounds, Conway would have taken on future cost burdens.

“Bond lawyers said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Townsell said.

In purchasing the property, the city would invest in reconfiguring the building’s high roof and ample space to possibly include an Olympic-sized pool, a tennis court, indoor playgrounds, rock climbing and ice skating, among several other options.

Following approval of the purchase and sale agreement, the city would pledge a $100,000 refundable deposit for a 40-day feasibility period. At the end of the period, the city would agree to the purchase the property or opt out. An agreement would close within 15 days.

The feasibility study would include inspection of the building itself as well as additional public input.

Alderman Shelley Mehl said she has concerns about whether the property value is in keeping with comparables or “comps” in the area. She added that an inspection of the property is needed before the project can move forward.

“I would want to be assured that, structurally, the integrity is there,” Mehl said.

Townsell said, to fund the community center project, the city would borrow money on a five-year loan and pay it off over five years.

“Can we afford it? Yes,” he said. “On council vote we can afford this and still have $1 million a year for parks capital to do whatever we need to do for remaining parks projects.”

To pay for operating costs, residents who use the facility would likely pay a daily fee, and a portion of funding would come from the city. Townsell said an endowment could grow large enough, however, to make a fee unnecessary.

“There are some options we have in funding, but part of that is going to be subject to a public vote,” Townsell said. “What we can do without a public vote is very limited. We can do some raising taxes, we can do some without raising taxes, but it still takes a public vote to commit to a bond issue.”

Townsell said he has looked to The Jones Center, a free indoor recreational facility in Springdale, as a model for what Conway’s center could become and how it could operate.

“Their operating cost, pure operating costs not offset by any revenue of any kind, is $3.6 million,” Townsell said. “If we are going to operate on even a partial level, it’s going to take a substantial amount of revenue.”

Alderman David Grimes was not present during Tuesday’s committee and council meetings at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., respectively.