The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts wants the city of Hot Springs to donate land for a new administration building, but the city doesn’t want to continue shouldering the financial burden of maintaining buildings on the ASMSA campus.
The land for the new building is on the same parcel as the old St. Joseph’s Hospital complex and its chapel and convent. The city bought the complex, including 200 Whittington Ave., from St. Joseph’s Regional Health Center for $300,000, according to the 1992 ordinance enabling the purchase. The city leased the land to the school the following year. It’s been a month-to-month lease since 2004.
“For that period of time, the city and school have been going along essentially with a gentlemen’s agreement,” City Attorney Brian Albright told the Hot Springs Board Directors at its May 10 work session.
According to the cost report presented at the work session, from 2017 to 2021, the city committed $684,511 to the maintenance and operation of the hospital complex at 100 Whittington Ave. and the Academic and Administration Building at 200 Whittington, including $366,809 for two new elevators at 200 Whittington.
“The concern we have is it’s been 30 years, and we’ve had the ongoing maintenance expenses,” Mayor Pat McCabe told ASMSA Director Cory Alderdice. “We’re looking at trying to allow you to fulfill your mission, but at the same time move on to some other projects as well and relieve ourselves of the ongoing maintenance expense.”
A resolution authorizing the mayor to convey the land for the new administration building was pulled from the agenda of the board’s May 3 business meeting amid unanswered questions about the school’s timeline to assume ownership of 200 Whittington and vacate the hospital complex. The resolution isn’t on the agenda for Tuesday night’s business meeting.
Alderdice planned on presenting the resolution to the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees at its May 23 meeting. He’s uncertain it can be placed back on the agenda, even if the city board put it back on its Tuesday night agenda.
“The trustees don’t like last-minute items,” he told the board, explaining that they won’t accept the land transfer without the enabling resolution.
The city donated land for the school’s $18.3 million Student Center at 153 Alumni Lane and $4.7 million Creativity and Innovation Complex at 220 Whittington. The 2010 nonbinding resolution that conveyed the 2.6 acres for the Student Center anticipated the school vacating the hospital complex by 2012. Upon notice of the vacation, the resolution said the city would have six months to start the demolition of the hospital.
“There was an expectation something was going to happen by Jan. 1, 2012, which has never come to fruition,” Albright told the city board. “Here we are 10 years later still grappling with the same questions.”
The demolition and abatement of the hospital complex represent one of the city’s largest unfunded liabilities, even with the $2 million the board set aside in the general fund reserve. The $1.75 million cost estimate from 2010 has more than doubled. City Manager Bill Burrough said $4.5 million was the most recent estimate.
“We just can’t keep allowing that number to grow and grow, and it’s just going to get more expensive as time goes on,” District 6 Director Steve Trusty told Alderdice. “We have to draw the line somewhere.”
Mechanical systems for the Pine and Cedar street wings are in the main hospital building. Faculty offices are in the Pine Street wing, and the school’s maintenance shop is in the Cedar Street wing. Both have to be relocated before the hospital can come down.
Alderdice said the school could vacate the hospital complex by 2024. He won’t be able to commit to the timeline until later this year, when he’ll know how much the school will receive in state fiscal year 2023 funding and the $5.5 million renovation of the chapel and convent will be completed.
“I know the process has been longer than any of us would like,” he told the board. “Yesterday would be great. Jan. 1, 2012, would’ve been fantastic, but we have intentionally moved each step of the way and done so by prioritizing this above so many other things as a campus to get to that point.”
Alderdice said building up a capital improvement fund has been one of the school’s top priorities. It’s done so without local property tax proceeds other public high schools receive or student tuition and fees. The school cannot issue debt, as it has no dedicated revenue to secure a bond issue.
“We’ve done it the old-fashioned way, which is saving, allocating a portion of our annual operating budget to capital needs, which had historically not been the school’s practice,” Alderdice told the board.
Carry-overs from previous years’ budgets, money from the governor’s discretionary fund and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s program-related investment provided the $5.5 million for the renovation of the chapel and convent and $3.5 million for the new administration building.
Alderdice said the chapel and convent work will be completed by August. Construction bids for the administration building will be opened in September. He said funding has yet to be secured for the relocation of the maintenance shop, which has a $1 million cost estimate.
The city recommended the resolution in support of the land transfer for the new administrative offices be amended to include the Academic and Administration Building at 200 Whittington Ave. Alderdice said he could present the proposal to his board by the end of the year.
“I can certainly work toward that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an unreasonable path to pursue.”