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Major-League plans abound for arena: But questions remain on location, financing.

Major-League Plans Abound For Arena

Two groups have been working quietly and earnestly for months on ambitious but widely divergent plans for sports, cultural and entertainment centers in the Little Rock area.

Both plans are tentative with myriad details unsettled, not the least of which is financing.

One plan, championed by real estate developer Jim Moses and lawyer Mark Grobmyer and tentatively supported by various civic leaders in Little Rock, calls for a multipurpose complex on downtown property between Third and Fifth Streets bounded on the west by the offices of Arkla Inc. and on the east by Interstate 30. The land is owned by Jackson T. Stephens and Stephens' corporate subsidiaries, which formerly owned and operated the Coachman's Inn on part of it.

The other proposal is advanced by businessman Jack Fryer of Maumelle and backed in concept, according to Fryer, by John Q. Hammons of Springfield, Mo., a prominent developer of hotels and civic centers around the country. Hammons was not in his office when a reporter called last week. His secretary said she could confirm that and had dealings with him.

The proposal calls for a football stadium, basketball and entertainment arena and relocation of the state fairgrounds. The proposed site is 150 acres near the interchange of Interstate 40 and 430 in the Crystal Hill-Maumelle area. Fryer declined last week to reveal the owner of the land.

But it is the downtown proposal that is further along in its development and securing of civic support, and perhaps feasibility.

It calls for a sports and entertainment arena shaped as a diamond to be the anchor, flanked by other buildings that are tentatively proposed as a museum, research center and trade exhibit.

Tied to the project would be expansion of the exhibition space at the Statehouse Convention Center, improvements to the Museum of Science and History in MacArthur Park and, in a relatively recent addition, expansion and improvement of War Memorial Stadium.

Moses, of the AMR architectural and real estate development and management firm, has been the driving force. He, Grobmyer and others-including Little Rock Mayor Buddy Villines - have met with nationally known developers of arenas to develop plans and drawings.

Their hope is to invigorate the downtown area, attract visitors and stimulate other developments. They stress that the proposal is far more than a basketball arena and hope to emphasize the educational, cultural and economic value.

Won't Discuss Financing

Moses and other ground-level supporters have declined to discuss possible financing schemes or confirm any of the details that have begun filtering out in recent days. Among the bits of information to surface is an idea to ask the voters of Little Rock to extend the temporary one-cent county jail tax when it expires in March.

Continuing the penny tax only in Little Rock would generate from $20 million to $25 million annually, part of which would be pledged to debt service to pay off construction bonds. Some of the money would be used by the city for maintenance and operations, including raises for police and firefighters.

An election on the tax proposal presumably would be held in February and the theme of the campaign would be that the center could be afforded without any increase in existing taxes.

It has been suggested - it is not clear by whom - that Jack Stephens might sell the land at a discounted price, or even donate it. His son, Warren, wouldn't comment for the record last week when asked about that suggestion.

Plans are more tentative for War Memorial Stadium. Since it is owned by the state, the stadium apparently would have to be deeded to the city before local expansion plans could be undertaken. One suggestion is for skyboxes, meaning exclusive suites that would be leased, the proceeds dedicated to paying for an expansion of 10,000 to 15,000 seats.

The uncertainty over the stadium is heightened by reports that the University of Arkansas might play fewer of its games in Little Rock. Civic leaders are seeking a long-term commitment to Little Rock from Frank Broyles, the athletic director.

But Fryer, who recently left the Maumelle Company to go on his own, also has been talking with Broyles. His plans are more expansive, and more tentative.

"I don't want to talk down the Little Rock project, but they are proposing to cram all of this into a few blocks with parking on the street," he said last week.

He said his plan "would allow all the facilities to use the same infrastructure, parking, bathroom facilities, on 150 acres. It makes a lot more sense to me." His site is 12 minutes from downtown Little Rock, he said.

Fryer said that Hammons is a client who is committed to developing a hotel in the greater Little Rock area. He said that Hammons would prefer that the hotel be built in conjunction with the kind of complex that Fryer has been talking about with various groups, including the Stephenses. Hammons is a nationally known developer of Holiday Inns and Embassy Suite Hotels. He developed the Holiday Inn Civic Centers in Fort Smith and Springdale.

Fryer is even less clear on financing. In addition to a new football stadium and a new basketball-entertainment arena, he wants to establish a new state fairgrounds on the property and open what he calls an "equestrian center."

State financing would appear to be essential, but Fryer said he is working on alternatives that would limit the state's costs. Even so, he said, "The Little Rock project will rely on some kind of tax on the local level."

Among Fryer's problems is that he may be beaten to the punch. The downtown group is expected to have a news conference this week to unveil its proposal.

PHOTO : SITE FOR ARENA PLAN: One study calls for a sports arena/entertainment complex near I-30 downtown Little Rock.
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Title Annotation:Plans for sports, cultural and entertainment centers in Little Rock, Arkansas
Author:Brummett, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 5, 1990
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