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Little Rock Board To Decide On Referring Robinson Center Renovations To Voters

The Little Rock Board of Directors is to decide Tuesday afternoon whether to allow a special election for voters to decide whether to use a two percent tax to fund a massive renovation of Robinson Center Music Hall.

But there are concerns that there hasn’t been enough discussion about the funding.

The extensive plan was unveiled last week, calling for $60 million worth of renovations to the building, which was built in 1939. The cost rises to $68 million when including the expense of relocating staff and paying for a special bond election.

“We have had a tremendous reaction, a lot of support with obviously the performers and users of the facility, but also through the community with our plans for the restoration of the historic building," said Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She says Robinson Center Music Hall is outdated by today’s standards and needs the work to remain viable.

“That really limits what shows we can actually host in the house itself and prohibits us from hosting several of the larger Broadway shows especially. The sound and technology and the acoustics really need some upgrades,” Hall said.  Plans also include building a two story conference center on top of the structure, facing the Arkansas River, and making the main entrance to the hall along Broadway, rather than at the top of the steps in front of the building. 

Officials want to fund work using an existing two percent hospitality tax on prepared foods and hotel stays.

Little Rock restaurant owner Mark Abernathy.

But Mark Abernathy, a longtime Little Rock restaurant owner who today runs Loca Luna and Red Door, says his industry has not been included in discussions and doesn’t believe this is the best way to pay for the work.

“We need to save Robinson, it’s a valuable asset, but you don’t do it like this. You need to include the hospitality industry because it’s our customers that pay this tax. You need to talk to us. We need to be part of the dialogue," Abernathy said. "I think there’s smarter ways to do this."

Abernathy says he was surprised to learn about the plan a week ago and that the Little Rock Board of Directors is already set to decide whether to allow a special election.

“They’re going to tie up $70 million for 30 years without talking about it? They don’t even want to talk about this. They want to railroad this through the city board. They want to vote on it before anybody even has a chance… not only we can’t understand what they’re doing, they don’t want anybody to even talk about it," Abernathy said.

But Gretchen Hall from the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau counters that nothing has been done in secret.

“That's unfortunate, his feeling on that and I don't feel that we are railroading anything  through," Hall said.

"We've been very public about the study of Robinson Center and the study of this renovation plan, actually since October of 2011.   We rolled out those findings publicly in June of 2012 and included in those findings that a large portion of the funding would be proposed as a bond initiative dedicating the A & P tax," Hall said.  The Advertising and Promotion tax impacts restaurant meals and hotel stays. 

Robinson Center is currently hosting the Broadway show Wicked. Before Sunday night’s performance, a representative of Celebrity Attractions came out and told the crowd there would be an election in December and asked audience members to vote for the renovations, suggesting it’s believed the Little Rock board will decide to allow a special election.

“Well, I certainly don’t want to take anything for granted. We did receive a nice reception from the presentation last week. The city board had a lot of questions and we have answered all of those. They may have additional questions,” said Hall.

Tuesday's meeting starts earlier than normal because of National Night Out events, with board members gathering at 4 PM at Little Rock City Hall.  The item concerning Robinson is the last on the agenda.

Abernathy says he'd prefer to see more discussion before a decision is made about referring this to voters.

“This will be a real integrity check for the city board," said Abernathy.  "We just need to stop a minute and take a look at this. This may be a great idea and a great plan, but on the surface it just looks nuts.”

If approved by the board Tuesday, the proposal to renovate Robinson Center Music Hall could go before voters as early as December 10.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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