GREG HARTON: Fayetteville's turn to spend comes April 9

Fayetteville's bite at the apple comes up April 9.

One might say the city, which will ask voters to extend collection of a 1 percent sales tax for several more years and to authorize debt of more than $226 million, is actually a little late to the action. With the region's economy bopping along at a pretty good pace, Rogers voters approved a nearly $300 million bond issue last August while Springdale voters gave a thumbs up to $224.6 million in February.

Fayetteville is pushing a typical municipal project argument: You're already paying a 1 percent sales tax, so why not keep it going so a new batch of projects can be completed? Paul Becker, the city's chief financial officer, estimates the maximum term for a new round of bonds will be about 16 years. He projects, however, revenue will be adequate to pay the bonds off in about 12 years.

This 2019 bond issue is more than double the city's last one in 2006 and is the largest bond issue in the city's history, but comparable to Rogers' and Springdale's efforts.

Civic leaders have supported a campaign that encourages voters to embrace "10 for Fay," that is, cast favorable votes for all 10 ballot questions the City Council referred. This newspaper's reporting staff, namely Stacy Ryburn, has probably done more than anyone to break down the 10 questions and explore them publicly in detail.

The 10 for Fay campaign has been more thematic -- casting the entire group of projects as "critical issues" to "keep Fayetteville a regional leader," or, as Mayor Lioneld Jordan is quoted as saying, "Voting for all 10 questions will help keep Fayetteville the best city in Arkansas."

Such cheerleading glosses over the details, but details may not be all that crucial to a lot of voters. Bond elections are often less about the projects specifically and more about how people feel about the direction city leaders are taking a community. People seem pretty satisfied with Jordan's leadership. The last political opponent who suggested otherwise got trounced at the ballot box.

My guess is voters will back the package of projects placed before them: new money for, roads, trails, drainage and parks, including completion of Kessler Mountain Regional Park; creation of an economic development fund for job training and incentives; and a new police station and three new fire stations.

The boldest item is, without a doubt, the $31.7 million cultural arts corridor, anchored by development of a "civic space" of parkland where the city now owns a parking lot at West Avenue and Dickson Street. Advocates say it will be "transformational," cementing Fayetteville as the southern anchor of the region's established and growing love affair with the arts. It will, they say, tie together the Walton Arts Center, TheatreSquared, an expanding Fayetteville Public Library, the city-owned wooded area known as Fay Jones Woods and the Razorback Greenway through downtown.

I'm a little skeptical the space will, as advocates suggest, be as transformational as the Walton Arts Center when it opened in 1992 or will really serve as a response to Bentonville's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Supporters have provided little evidence for the claims it will promote jobs, higher wages and a stronger economy. It will build a $10 million parking deck and a well-designed park driven by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation and, yes, maybe it will "redefine our city as a regional arts destination." That will rely more on how Fayetteville promotes use of the space rather than the space just existing. Details have been rather slim on those uses, kind of a wait-and-see-after-you-approve it model. The city appears hopeful voters will accept a "build it and they'll come" promise mostly built on hope, not any kind of formal study of economic impact.

The space will, however, be much more attractive and inviting than asphalt and, depending on the city's success in supporting events and activities in the new space, could make the West and Dickson area more vibrant, even if the impact might be overstated today.

Commentary on 03/31/2019