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District 1 candidates differ over 2040 plan

by David Showers | October 17, 2020 at 4:00 a.m.
Garland County Election Commission Chairman Gene Haley sets up a voting machine at the Hot Springs Convention Center on Friday in preparation for the start of early voting on Monday. The center is one of seven early voting locations for the 2020 general election and nonpartisan run-off election. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

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The incumbent in the Hot Springs Board of Directors District 1 race said the long-range plan the board adopted last week gives future boards and city staff a set of organizing principles for land use and infrastructure policy. The challenger said the $274,870 the city paid a consulting firm to put together the 112-page document could've been better spent elsewhere.

Director Erin Holliday said HS2040: Forward Hot Springs Comprehensive Plan, which city staff and Design Workshop began soliciting public input for in June 2019, was worth the investment.

"It's not something that sits on a shelf," Holliday, whom the board appointed in May 2019 to serve the remainder of Suzanne Davidson's second term, said. "It's something that gives us guidance for the next 20 years so that as our staff retires or has turnover there's still a guidebook in place that when the next person comes in they can hit the ground running and know where we're going.

"There's a lot of really solid goals in it and strategy and tactics in it that comes from the most contemporary and forward-thinking ideas around the study of urban planning. I think that's why it's a great thing we invested in it."

Mark Toth, Holliday's opponent, said the plan rehashed previous plans the city and The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce commissioned and provided no new information.

"We didn't need to spend money to have a study to tell us something we already knew," Toth, who also applied to serve the remainder of Davidson's term, said. "What we need is leadership that has contacts in the community and understands what are the real issues and will spend the money addressing the issues, not paying out-of-state consultants to tell us what we should already know.

"My perspective, because I'm a member of four neighborhood associations, I'm talking to people who are passionate about their neighborhoods, who are engaged in trying to improve their neighborhoods. They're living day to day with the problems. You just have to have a more boot on the ground kind of perspective on what's needed."

The candidates look at issues through the lens of the neighborhood associations they've credited for helping to revitalize the Whittington and Park areas. They're both members of the Park Avenue Community Association and Whittington Valley Neighborhood Association, with Toth serving as president of the latter for more than a decade.

They disagree on the comprehensive plan but have similar positions on other issues affecting District 1, the city's northernmost political boundary, and the city at large.

They both support the flood detention basin the city plans to build in the Whittington Creek watershed, provided it can be built in a way that's consistent with the surrounding environment. Both expressed disappointment that the city's request for proposals for the redevelopment of the Majestic Hotel site didn't garner more interest but are excited about the prospect of more than $100 million in private capital being invested downtown.

Holliday said she expected the board to make a decision by the end of the year on the agreement City Manager Bill Burrough and City Attorney Brian Albright are negotiating with the development team that's proposed a $110 million wellness and water-centric resort at the 100 Park Ave. site that's sat idle since 2006. The team submitted the only responsive proposal.

"I've been very clear with the city it has to be something that has a positive impact on the people who live here, because we have to deal with it on a regular basis," said Holliday, an artist who's the executive director of Emergent Arts, a nonprofit that organizes community art exhibits and events and promotes art education. "The developer does want to make sure they're a partner with the city and that the residents are happy with what's there as well as it being destination for our tourists."

Toth said the city needs to recoup the more than $2 million the board appropriated from the solid waste fund to acquire the property, demolish its condemned structures and secure a certificate of environmental clearance. The Grand Point Investment Group and Cienda Partners-led development team has proposed buying the property for $2,099,000.

"I understand people's concern, but we need to move ahead," Toth, a bookkeeper and provider of professional administrative services, said. "That lot has been vacant for five or six years. The resort will bring in jobs. It will bring in tax revenue. I think the resort, if it's done right, can be a spur to economic development and revitalization further on down Park Avenue."

Both would like to see the United Daughters of the Confederacy statue moved to a less conspicuous location but aren't in favor of the city using its powers of condemnation to relocate what's become a flashpoint in the debate over racial and social justice. The local UDC chapter owned property where the monument resides is in District 1.

"Ultimately what we need to do as a community, we need to encourage those who believe the statue should stay that they are against the tide of history," Toth said. "That they are harming the city. The image has already cost or undermined potential businesses that would like to have relocated to our city.

"There is a perfect place for the monument. That is the Confederate cemetery. That's where it should go. That's the appropriate place to put it. We're not denying history, we're simply moving the monument to its proper location and bringing our city's public image into the modern world."

Holliday said she's against using content as a basis for condemnation, explaining that it was made clear to her during her time as a city planning commissioner that court precedent forbids cities from imposing content-based restrictions. She was referring to the Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., Supreme Court decision that ruled unconstitutional the Arizona city's ordinance that placed different restrictions on political, ideological and directional signs.

"At the same time, do I think that's the best position for that monument, no I don't," Holliday, who worked with the city to draft the resolution the board adopted in support of the Legislature adding a hate crimes statute to the state criminal code, said. "More people notice it now because it's come up in conversation in the press, in social media. The message that it can send to people who live here and who visit here, which is one that is intolerant, I don't think that's OK.

"If there were a safe place where those who fought on behalf of the South could be better memorialized, that would be great."

City directors don't receive financial compensation from the city. They serve as the city's supreme legislative, executive and budgeting authority. They're responsible for approving the city's budget, hiring, firing and setting compensation for the city manager and city attorney, setting city policy and implementing measures affecting the health, welfare and safety of city residents.

Early voting for the Nov. 3 general election begins Monday.

Erin Holliday
Erin Holliday
Mark Toth
Mark Toth

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