Major plans for Robinson Auditorium were set into motion Monday night by the Little Rock Board of Directors.
The Board cast a unanimous vote to hold an election for funding a nearly $70 million expansion and renovation of the auditorium. The funds come from an existing 2 percent hospitality tax created in 1980 to build the Statehouse Convention Center.
Tensions arose over two primary concerns. Is the benefit limited to downtown while the funding comes from everywhere? Was there enough notice given, particularly to those that would pay the tax?
Restaurateur Mark Abernathy, “All the tax money is being spent downtown again like it has been for years. Most of the benefits go downtown.” He continued, “I do take quite an exception that most of the restaurateurs are for this. Most of the restaurateurs didn’t have a clue how much this was going to cost and that it was going to tie up money for 30 years until Wednesday.”
Vice Mayor Doris Wright, while in support of plans for Robinson, did express some alignment with Abernathy’s perspective.
“I have been on the board since 2007 and have heard the concerns that all of the revenue is spent to represent downtown,” said Wright.
Some in attendance weighed in strongly refuting much of Abernathy’s concerns. City Director Gene Fortson said they’re not springing anything on anyone while several restaurateurs said the same, noting the project has been in discussions for two years.
Ed Payton with Celebrity Attractions, a primary player in bringing Broadway shows to Little Rock, said the city should look to a similar project in Oklahoma to see how growth has been distributed.
“Over a decade ago in Oklahoma City the same thing happened. They closed the hall for a couple of seasons and during that time we had to get creative to continue a Broadway season. But the end result since that time has been we have increased the number of season subscribers in Oklahoma City by 500 percent. Every restaurant and hotel will tell you that they’re really happy when a Broadway show is in town because their tables are full, their hotel rooms are full, and their businesses are busy,” said Payton.
Afterward Mayor Mark Stodola weighed in on the value Robinson holds for Little Rock.
“A tremendous iconic facility at that time and like anything that’s been around for 74 years it’s in need of a new dress so we want to spruce this little lady up and continue with its wonderful performance opportunities. The other thing that really didn’t get a lot of attention during the discussion is that this is a conference center too. It was the initial convention center of the city and now serves a very valuable role for conferences and meetings,” said Stodola.
Several city directors pointed out that in their minds Robinson Auditorium has been iconic since their childhoods and is a natural focal point for the city’s energies and ambitions.