Monday, February 01, 2010

TOP STORY >> City in full-court press for fair

Leader staff writer and Editor-in-chief

Much of the 445 acres of land that Jacksonville officials have offered to give to the Arkansas State Fair could be acquired through eminent domain if any of the owners hesitate to sell to the city.

The property is one of three adjacent parcels along the North Belt between Jacksonville and I-40 in North Little Rock that could be the new site for the state fair complex.

The Jacksonville proposal has easy access  from the highway, which the state fair requires, while the others lack such access.

Jacksonville is putting on a full-court press to land the fair and has formed an economic development commission to make the site off South Hwy. 161 available to the fair board at no charge.

Entergy owns about half the land that Jacksonville wants to buy for $1 million and give to the fair. The electric utility has told Jacksonville officials it is not interested in selling — even for $3,000 an acre — but the city could offer Entergy other land in a swap.

Jacksonville could also claim eminent domain and acquire the property, the way Little Rock condemned land for the Clinton Presidential Library.

“I can’t imagine Entergy not getting behind this,” Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said.

The economic development commission will include Fletcher, former Mayor Tommy Swaim, engineer Tommy Bond, banker Donnie Farmer, realtor Jim Peacock and attorney Mike Wilson.

Its aim is to get the property ready as a gift for the state fair, just as Jacksonville residents donated the land for Little Rock Air Force almost 60 years ago.

About 35 acres of the proposed property are inside Jacksonville. The city plans to annex the rest of the land to give to the fair or develop it as an industrial park if the fair plans fall through.

Feasibility study

The Arkansas Livestock Show Association board on Wednesday approved a feasibility study to decide which of the sites will make the final cut if the fair leaves Little Rock.

The Leader reported last week that the three sites on the east side of I-440, from the Rixey exit in Jacksonville to the Galloway exit at I-40 in North Little Rock, were the finalists to replace the fairgrounds on Roosevelt Road in Little Rock.

Board chairman Ned Ray Purtle said, “We’ve never seen as much support as we have from the folks in Jacksonville. We’ve got a great opportunity offered to us.”

The entrance to the Jacksonville site would be on Wooten Road off South Hwy. 161 and I-440. The North Little Rock site would be accessible from Dick Jeter Road off the Galloway exit at I-40.

The Davidson Ranch between those two sites is the third option being considered. The land for the two sites farthest from Jacksonville could cost several million dollars. Building the new complex could cost well over $100 million.

Ralph Shoptaw, general manager of the state fair, told The Leader after the board meeting, “If we can’t pay for it, we’ll have to stay where we are.”

Board member Ed Penick questioned the wisdom of looking for a new fair site during a recession while the state is cutting spending.

“What’s the big hurry?” Penick asked.

Purtle explained that the fair has not asked the state for any funding. The board was only committing $5,000 for a feasibility study and would consider alternative funding for the new fair, such as bonds and grants.

Cost was a prime consideration in the recommendations by engineer Basil Shoptaw to the executive committee of the Arkansas Livestock Show Association.

Keeping the fairground where it is and making improvements would be the least costly of the four possibilities, as little as $25 million and up to $57 million for phased development compared to $100 million or more for starting from scratch at an undeveloped site.

Sites Considered

The three other sites under consideration are located in northeast Pulaski County, to the north of I-40 and east of I-440. All three are adjacent to one to one another.

A proposal submitted by the city of Little Rock offered several levels of modification to the 85-acre site. Expanded parking, connector roads to I-30 and I-630 as well as refurbishment of existing buildings and construction of new ones are among recommended changes.

Drawbacks to the site are limits to how much the site could expand if even nearby homes were acquired to build parking. Expansion to the west is restricted by the fact that the land is in the Fouche Creek floodway.

The site offered by Jacksonville consists of 445 acres, 160 of which are in a floodplain. Highway access would be from Wooten Road at the Hwy. 161 and I-440 interchange.

There are nine owners of the land, including Entergy, real estate investment companies and individuals. The city has offered to acquire the land and provide utilities at no cost to the state fair association. The plan is to raise up to $1 million to buy the land – taking it by eminent domain if necessary. 

According to Shoptaw, it will take further research to determine how problematic the floodplain is for the Jacksonville site.

He suspects that for 124 acres drainage issues may be minimal. The other 56 acres are a wetland that could be preserved or modified as a lake. However, there are complexities involved whenever wetlands are on a site in regard to securing permits for any changes, he noted.

Another site under consideration lies to the south of the one offered by the city. It is 827 acres owned by Davidson Ranch that has 3,000 feet of frontage on I-440 and is partially visible from I-40. It includes 38 acres to the west of I-440, and 540 acres are in the floodplain. It carries a $2,995 per acre price tag.

The site does not meet highway access criteria. Existing access is along a two-lane for almost two miles from the Galloway Road/ I-40 interchange.

The third site is the southernmost of the three. It consists of 632 acres with three owners. The price is $4,512 per acre.

The tract is bound by Ink Bayou to the east and I-440 to the west and is known to include wetlands, though exactly how extensive is unknown.

The site would be visible along two miles of I-440. The site does not meet access requirements, requiring travel for two miles from the Galloway Road/I-40 interchange.

No site under consideration is ideal, in Shoptaw’s opinion.

The existing fairground is hindered by old buildings, lack of space and little room to expand. The three sites north of the river all have wetlands or low-lying areas. Two of those sites did not meet the highway-access criteria asked for in the request for proposals.

An option for planners is to take the most suitable land from the three northeast Pulaski sites – as well as adjacent land – to meld into a site with the most favorable characteristics – highway visibility, frontage and access, good drainage, proximity to utilities and all at the right price.

Deciding boundaries

“Are we restricted by absolute boundaries? No we are not. We will determine what we need and see what we can get. None of the sites is absolutely perfect. We will look at the area and look at sites and try to come up with a plan that would be very nice. One of the most important criteria is to make sure that there is adjacent land available.”

Price and proximity to I-40 figured strongly in Shoptaw’s recommendation of the three northeast Pulaski sites.

“They were the three lowest priced land, 1, 2, 3,” he said. “And they were the only good areas in terms of visibility and access. We always liked the idea of having a presence on I-40, and of course I-440 is very near to I-40. The only drawback is the scattered wetland issue, but hopefully we could work around that.”

Coming to a decision about the feasibility of relocating the state fairgrounds and where that might be is still months away.

Making a decision

The decision will be based on findings from several sources: A study about impact of a new fairgrounds on the state and local economies is due from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock within a few days; a feasibility study that will look at potential revenue streams that could come with a fairgrounds that operated year-round; and further research of the three northeast Pulaski sites by Shoptaw. 

Then there is the whole question of raising the money to develop a new fairground. “A menu of funding” likely would come into play, said Ralph Shoptaw, the state fair general manager.

That could include private and corporate donations for naming rights, foundation funding and low-interest loans.

“A lot will be determined by the feasibility study,” he said. “At the end of the day, what we build will have to have enough revenue to pay the note.”

Ralph Shoptaw estimates that once all preliminaries are complete – site selection, land purchase, financing, design and planning, actual construction will be another three to five years away.