By JOSH NEWTON
City leaders and administrators at Northeastern State believe it’s time for the community to move toward the future, in part through a collaborative effort tucked into a $21 million tax proposal.
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols and other city councilors recently put before voters a request to approve the multimillion-dollar sales tax increase of three-quarters of a percent, or about 75 cents more for every $100 spent. Nichols said Tahlequah’s municipal tax rate ranks 428th out of 509 communities in Oklahoma that collect a city sales tax.
Though the measure is projected for a 15-year period, Nichols said the tax will expire when bonds used to fund the projects are paid off, and sales tax revenue historically shows the city could pay off the debt in 10 years.
The question will go before city voters Tuesday, Jan 8, 2013.
While most of the funds would be earmarked for major road projects around the city, one venture – at an estimated cost of around $1.5 million – calls for a community center to be added to NSU’s multipurpose event center, now under construction on the north side of the campus.
“It’s a community center space that happens to be on NSU’s property,” said Nichols.
NSU’s multipurpose center, on its own, will feature more than 78,000 square feet with a floor plan of 69 rooms – including six locker rooms, a video-screening room, an athletic apparel shop, a suite of offices for university coaches and staff, concession areas, laundry facilities, a ticket office, and a room for athletic and alumni associations. The university’s basketball teams will also play their home games in the facility.
The $14.4 million construction project was approved by the Board of Regents of the Regional University System of Oklahoma last February.
“What has been discussed with the city of Tahlequah, and unanimously supported by the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce, is the community center add-alternate,” said NSU President Dr. Steve Turner.
If voters approve the tax proposal in January, the 8,000-square-foot community center would augment the event center on the northeast side. Construction for the community center is expected to cost around $1.4 million, with another $60,000 to be used for furniture, fixtures, and equipment.
“The community center would not be used for athletics,” said Turner. “It will primarily be used for meetings and conference-type events.”
Turner and Nichols said the community center annex could be used for a variety of events and activities, including employment and graduate-school fairs, health fairs, community service functions, academic seminars, regional summits, student orientation, tourism conferences, city events, and public forums.
Turner said NSU’s multipurpose center can draw larger events to Tahlequah, including sports camps, boat and travel shows, indoor powwows and rodeos, an indoor circus, trade shows, high school and university commencements, basketball tournaments, major concerts and more.
City and university leaders are working on a Memorandum of Agreement to guarantee the city’s use of the community center for five events throughout the year. Turner said the pact will allow the city to use, for one or possibly two of the events, both the community center and the larger multipurpose center. The MOA is expected to be complete by the end of December, before the tax proposal goes before voters.
“The bottom line is, the city has requested use of the center for five single-day events,” said Turner. “During the life of the sales tax, there will be no charge to the city.”
Once the sales tax rolls off the books, city and university leaders would have to revisit the deal; Turner said university officials cannot sign a contract into “perpetuity” – an agreement that would theoretically last forever.
As for other nonprofit and for-profit events, organizers will be able to contact NSU officials to rent the community center, much like the process already in place for renting the University Center. A request form can be picked up in UC office and filled out, and employees there work with groups and individuals to schedule rental, according to NSU Director of Auxiliary Services Todd Enlow.
During fiscal year 2012, 60 groups used the UC ballroom, which was booked for 150 events throughout that period.
“We have not developed [a fee schedule] as of yet for the multipurpose facility or the community center, but there will be one,” said Turner. “If someone rents the facility as a fundraiser, we don’t take the profits. This institution, in so many ways, has been a very good corporate partner. Personally, my whole job is to make sure we all work together to advance the area. For us to be able to offer a venue of this magnitude is a game-changer in Tahlequah.”
Nichols said he has heard from a handful of city residents who recall past problems that surfaced following passage of a city sales tax that benefited NSU. That tax proposal initially went before voters in October 2001 and passed by a slim margin, but was then tied up in a legal battle for about two years before being declared invalid. A second vote on the tax passed in March 2004.
During the runup to the second election, some Tahlequah Public Schools administrators and staff were reportedly led to believe that in return for publicly promoting the tax proposal, they would be allowed to hold events at NSU’s Gable Field – especially Tahlequah Tiger football games – for a nominal fee. But once the tax was on the books, the game plan changed, and NSU began billing TPS for usage. Some NSU officials said that statutorily, they were required to charge for facility rental.
TPS Director of Finance Diane Adamson said that until 2009, TPS paid $8,500 per football season to use Gable Field at the Doc Wadley Stadium. But in 2009, NSU changed its policy and began allowing the school district free use of the facilities; TPS provides help for cleaning up the stadium after school events.
Another issue that surfaced several years ago involved the Oklahoma Bandmasters Association, which wanted to hold a contest at NSU. Then-TPS Orange Express Band Director Harvey Price reportedly initiated the idea of bringing that contest to NSU’s Gable Field – something he’d wanted for nearly two decades – after the sales tax approval in 2004.
But NSU officials at that time told the OBA it would have to pay a $2,500 stadium fee, plus grant NSU 10 percent of the gate and sole rights to concessions, among other requirements. The OBA wanted the Tahlequah band to receive concession funds, as had been customary practice for the host band at such contests. When NSU balked, OBA leaders opted to take their event to Catoosa, where the OBA was offered free use of a field.
Turner and Nichols both said this week that it’s time to move forward, while also taking care to avoid such issues with future projects. Nichols pointed out those controversies were generated under previous city and university administrations.
“This is about now, and moving forward, not digging up old bones,” Turner said.
NSU will be responsible for scheduling use of the multipurpose event center and the community center, aside from the city’s five designated events each year, Turner said.
“The city of Tahlequah will not have oversight and administrative responsibility for the community center,” said Turner. “The costs to maintain the community center will be paid by NSU as part of its general utility and operations budget.”
NSU students also pay a $5-per-credit-hour fee to support costs of campus construction and operations, Turner said.
NSU will provide to city leaders the floor plans, budget information, contractor information, and payment information related to the community center.
“We recognize the need for the city of Tahlequah to provide documentation that the $1.5 million in sales tax proceeds are spent according to the ballot,” said Turner. “The city of Tahlequah will have the overall responsibility to release the information in accordance with its policies and procedures in the same way they release information about the entire list of projects as outlined in the ballot.”
The city’s approach to releasing that information to the public, Turner said, is up to city leaders.
Nichols said the city aims to be as transparent as possible.
“Ask and you shall receive; that’s what our policy is,” said Nichols. “That information will be part of the information the oversight committee we’re going to form will use to make sure that money is being spent correctly.”
Turner said the university will also work with Sodexho – which provides all food services for NSU’s three campuses – should issues ever arise with bookings for the community center.
“Our private contract with Sodexho is no different than most of the public institutions in the state, where they have the first right of refusal,” said Turner.
“My whole goal is much more about finding solutions than creating impediments. We’ve not had discussions [about the contract with Sodexho as it relates to the new facility], but it’s much easier to negotiate and find solutions on the front side. If we’re told by the mayor, ‘Look, I’ve got one of these events, and [the Sodexho contract] just really creates a problem,’ I’m going to see what we can do to find a solution.”
Turner said the NSU multipurpose center should be open by August 2013, while the community center would take several more months to complete, should city voters approve of the sales tax proposal.