In an exclusive interview with the Citizen, Parks & Recreation Commission Chairman Bill Featherstone recently spoke about the issue most on his mind these days: the Lake Leatherwood Park Master Plan and the upcoming tax ballot, which adds a one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax to fund that plan.
The tax, which amounts to 12.5 cents on $100, has a four-year sunset clause, meaning after four years it will go away.
"It's important for people to know that Leatherwood isn't paying for itself right now," Featherstone said. "It is subsidized by Parks & Rec. And with the absence of the city stipend we got for 10 years running, our main sources of income there are cabin rentals and the current quarter-cent sales tax we operate on."
The idea behind the tax and the new master plan, Featherstone said, is to make Lake Leatherwood Park not only self-sustaining, but to allow it to grow.
"It's important to understand that this tax money is an avenue to other money as well," he said. "Let's say this tax does what is predicted, which is to generate about $105,000 a year, with a four-year sunset. That's not near enough to execute the master plan no matter which draft of it we end up using.
But what it does is qualify you for matching grants. There are many, many grants that will match your money, if you have any money to match. But you can't go for a 50/50 match if you haven't got the 50. You don't qualify. You may qualify in every other way, except you can't match it."
The idea is to parlay the tax funds into bigger things. "Most of the grants based on our experience have been at least 50/50 matches," Featherstone said. "Sometimes you even get an 80/20. So I think you can conservatively say we can turn $400,000 over four years into $800,000, hopefully more. If it passes."
Featherstone stressed that the tax income would allow Parks & Rec to "go after every source of revenue we can, because we want the master plan to be done as quickly as can be."
As he outlined it, two things are necessary for attracting funding for a project like Lake Leatherwood. "First," he said, "you have to have a plan. No serious investor of any kind, whether it be a foundation or whatever, is going give you five minutes of their time if you can't show them what it is you're going to do. The second things is, they want you to be invested. If you aren't committing anything to the project, why should they?"
The list of projects falling under the master plan are varied, from the most basic -- re-surfacing the road into Leatherwood, re-purposing the bathhouse, which is now used mostly for storage, renovating the cabins, installing handicap accessible bathrooms -- to more elaborate projects.
"The south end of the lake is turning into a marsh," he said. "We know something needs to be done, so we're going to solicit expert consultation in that regard. The trails need to be maintained. There's a long list, but it is prioritized, and furthermore, because we are asking for public input up front and every year thereafter, the priorities can shift if they need to. The master plan is a living document, not carved in stone."
Given the master plan is a work in progress, Featherstone rebutted any accusation of the plan being "a pig in a poke."
"The timing isn't as great as we wish it were," he said. "There were two factors in play: for one thing, the master plan's overdue. We should've had one 5 or 10 years ago. We need one now. Procrastinating is over. We felt it was in the city's best interest to have the most number of people possible vote for this issue, and you only get that chance once every four years, during a Presidential election. We're not waiting another four years, so now's the time."
Featherstone reiterated that the largest part of the park will remain as it is -- undeveloped. "That's part of what Leatherwood is about, nature at its rawest," he said. "But parts have already been developed that can be improved to attract more additional usage than we can accommodate right now."
He mentioned three current popular and successful biking events held at Leatherwood -- the annual Triathlon, the Fat Tire Festival, and the Eurekan. "We can continue to attract events like that, but you have to have the infrastructure to do it," he said. "That's part of what the master plan is intended to do."
Re-purposing the old bathhouse will involve turning it in to a learning center, which will serve both as an educational outlet for any schools interested in taking advantage of the vast expanse of the park, and as a source of revenue.
"This is not just a Parks & Rec thing," Featherstone said. "We represent the people of Eureka. While not everybody agrees with everything, there is not a single time since I began doing this, in 1998, when we didn't honestly feel we had the majority will of the people behind us. A lot of time you don't know for sure, you can't poll everybody. The thing is, you're never going to get anything done if you wait for every single person to say yes. It doesn't work that way."
He stressed the value of compromise. "An example is that some people don't want motorboats on the lake," he said. "I feel that way myself, personally. However, there is money perhaps available from Arkansas Game & Fish, and one string probably tied to that money, were we to use it to fix the roads, would be that we allow small motors on the lake. That's just how it works. We do have a no-wake rule on the lake now, of course. But that's the nature of compromise."
In the end, Featherstone stressed, the master plan was "all about Leatherwood. Every dime will be spent not just on Lake Leatherwood, but more specifically, in executing the master plan. We want to be totally accountable. Anybody can walk into our office any day and see how every dime is being spent. We certainly hope this ballot will pass and we can get started out there."