Deck Debate Mounts

Coody, Swain Question Process For Funding Project

A chicken-and-egg debate has hatched among those close to discussions about a new parking deck in downtown Fayetteville.

On one side of the issue are Mayor Lioneld Jordan and members of his administration, who say authority to issue millions of dollars in bonds should be in place before the city devotes any time and resources to design a project.

Former Mayor Dan Coody and Brian Swain, a member of Jordan’s deck committee, say city officials need to give more thought to what the structure will look like and where it will go before the City Council approves the debt.

“We could rush forward and build a parking deck and do exactly the wrong thing, and we’ll be living with it for the rest of our lives,” Coody said. “We need to get the deck built. We need to get this issue resolved. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, and I think we should look at doing it the right way.”

Both viewpoints could come to a head at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Aldermen are set to consider issuing up to $6.5 million in bonds to pay for a deck.

Meeting Info

Fayetteville City Council

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday

Where: City Administration Building, 113 W. Mountain St.

On the Agenda: A proposed bond issue that would finance an entertainment district parking deck

Jordan’s volunteer parking deck committee has identified a 65-space paid parking lot at Spring Street and West Avenue as the ideal location for a 300-space deck that could be as tall as five stories. The committee picked the site from three presented by Jordan. The main parking lot west of the Walton Arts Center was not one of the options. Jordan said Friday, however, all options are still on the table.

“I’ve not hung my hat on any location,” the mayor said.

No geological studies have been done to determine if soil at the Spring Street location is stable enough to support a multitiered deck. No engineer or architect has been hired to design the project, either.

Members of Jordan’s administration have said it’s first necessary to set a budget for the project so they’ll know how much money they have to spend before incurring any expense.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Don Marr, compared the administration’s plan to securing a loan to pay for a house.

“We would go to the bank, and we would say, ‘This is how much I make a year, how much could I borrow,’” Marr told aldermen at last week’s agenda session. “Then I would design my house based on what I could borrow.”

Under that scenario, Marr said, the city wouldn’t be “designing something and then going to the public and asking them to fund whatever is designed.”

The city’s bond counsel and underwriters have said as much as $6.5 million could be raised through bond debt based on the roughly $1 million the city generated in the first year of paid parking. Future parking revenue would be devoted to repaying the debt.

City officials have said that, realistically, they’ll only need to borrow about $6.25 million.

Roughly $5.5 million would be available to pay direct project costs after more than $400,000 is set aside in a debt service reserve and all underwriting, legal and other issuance fees are paid.

“At the end of the day whatever location we pick and whatever design we do, we still have $5.5 million to work with and that’s it,” Jordan said.

Swain, who oversaw bond issues and capital projects as a city employee in the 1990s, suggested hiring a structural engineer and architect to analyze the feasibility of different sites and costs associated with each before issuing bonds and accruing interest on those bonds.

“You always want to put off the borrowing as long as possible,” said Swain, who was also heavily involved in planning for a parking deck behind Central United Methodist Church on Dickson Street as the church’s administrator. “Once you start the borrowing, you’ve got to start paying back the interest.”

Swain said city officials would be better served if they could find available money within their budget to hire engineers and architects and eventually pay back that money using bonds issued closer to when construction begins.

Paul Becker, city finance director, said Friday just because council members authorize the bonds, that doesn’t mean they would be issued immediately.

Becker couldn’t provide a timeline for when the bonds would be issued except to say it would likely be sometime next year, as close as possible to when the city would begin incurring costs for the project.

“We don’t have any other funds to commit for this parking deck other than the parking revenue, which is going to support the bonds,” he said.

Coody said Friday that longtime residents should need no reminder of the disastrous effects from another decision to issue bonds before a project had been properly designed.

The city spent more than $2 million in the late 1980s after plans for a highly controversial trash incinerator that never came to pass.

“If we had not issued bonds until we had a solid plan and everything in place,” Coody said, “we wouldn’t have lost those millions of dollars.”

Coody outlined another location he said officials have overlooked as a site for additional downtown parking.

He said another level of parking could be built underneath the existing lot west of the Walton Arts Center.

Coody’s idea is rooted in a similar plan put forward when the center was in planning stages more than 20 years ago.

That option could provide more available spaces than a five-story deck without taking away the surface lot that exists, Coody said.

He added the plan might not be the best option, but, he argued, it’s worth exploring further.

“The cheapest, easiest, worst thing we could do is to have an ugly parking deck there in the middle of downtown to have us all look at for the next 100 years,” Coody said.

The former mayor, who held office for eight years before losing a re-election bid to Jordan in 2008, said Friday his concerns were not politically motivated.

“I am a taxpayer in town, and I want to make sure any money that is spent is spent wisely,” Coody said.

He and Swain questioned if $5.5 million would be enough to build a parking deck after geological work, site design, utility relocation, equipment purchase and possible property acquisition are paid.

A 313-space parking deck completed this year at the Washington County Courthouse, by comparison, cost $6.1 million. The deck originally was expected to cost $4.4 million, but the price tag kept rising after multiple underground voids were discovered.

The four-story, 215-space deck behind Central United Methodist Church cost about $4.2 million, Swain said.

Asked whether he thought $5.5 million would be enough to build a city-owned lot, Jordan said Friday, “It’ll have to be.”

Jordan emphasized that he is fulfilling his promise to voters by moving forward with a deck after one year’s worth of paid parking revenue was collected.

“As the mayor and leader of this city, I’m bringing it forward like I said I was going to,” Jordan said.

Central to the parking deck discussion is the push for more parking during Walton Arts Center events.

Terri Trotter, chief operating officer for the center, said the organization isn’t involved in the debate about the timing of the bonds or the deck’s location.

But, she said, “We need a deck, and we very much support anything that we can do to make it happen.”

“For us, a parking deck and solving some of the parking challenges is the most critical challenge that’s facing the entertainment district,” Trotter said. “It has been an issue for us for close to 15 years now. It comes up as the No. 1 challenge that our patrons face in coming to the arts center.”