U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., spent several hours in Benton on Tuesday viewing street/drainage problems and also met with city leaders about two major upcoming projects — the implementation of a four-year degree program and a facilities expansion at UALR-Benton Center and the construction of an events center/hotel project adjacent to Tinseltown Cinema.
Pryor's visit began at City Hall, where he connected with Mayor David Mattingly, who accompanied the senator throughout his visit in the city.
Also in Pryor's entourage were two of his aides, Michael Teague, a former Benton resident, and Deke Whitbeck.
After the brief stop at City Hall, the group met with Kim Jackson, director of the UALR-Benton Center.
At that site, Mattingly updated Pryor on plans to begin a four-year e-commerce degree at UALR-Benton beginning in the fall.
The proposal is scheduled to go before the state Department of Higher Education on April 27 in a meeting at Bentonville.
Mattingly and Jackson apprised Pryor on the steps that have brought the proposal thus far, including the fact that all of the degree requirements currently are being offered through established courses.
No other school in Arkansas is offering the degree and only two are known to be offering the degree in the country, Mattingly said. He explained that this degree is expected to be received enthusiastically because of the current interest in information technology programs.
Mattingly and Jackson also noted that additional facilities will be needed at UALR if the response to the degree turns out to be as expected.
The existing UALR facility here — in a former junior high structure — can handle "up to 750-800 students, but we would be packed in here," Jackson said.
Currently, the building can accommodate around 600 students, Jackson said.
The plans that are developing between the Benton School District and a committee promoting the UALR project involve expanding the UALR Center into a new structure to be located on the site of C.W. Lewis Stadium.
This plan is contingent upon the school district's trade of school property to First Security Bank, whose downtown branch would become the location for the district's central administration office.
Mattingly explained to Pryor that the Benton School Board recently voted to complete a new sports complex to accommodate Benton High School Panther football beginning in the fall of 2013.
Mattingly explained that no tax is being proposed to fund the development of the UALR facilities. An ad hoc committee is working on fundraising possibilities, he said.
"It's an exciting time," Mattingly told Pryor, as he pointed out the economic benefits that a four-year institution could bring to the city and to Saline County.
Jackson noted that in other areas where the e-commerce degree is offered, people who have received the degree are "starting out in jobs where they make $98,000."
"We already have everything here to offer the degree," she said.
"We think this will be great for our community and our state."
Following his visit at UALR, Pryor's entourage, accompanied by Aldermen Kerry Murphy and Frank Baptist, visited sites in the Northshore Drive area where drainage issues are of serious concern to city officials. Tony Floyd, manager of the city's street department, also joined the group at these locations.
After these inspections, the group went to Tinseltown Cinema area, the site for an events center that is expected to get under way in early July.
Joining the group at this location were Gary James, executive director of the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce; Lamont Cornwell, the city's community development director; and Jim Towe, the city's community development supervisor.
Pryor asked about the funding for the events center, which is to be attached to a private hotel.
James explained that the center's financing is coming from the city's 2.5 percent Advertising and Promotion Commission tax.
At that location, James displayed architectural drawings of the facility, pointing out that a focal point of the structure is a rotunda entrance.
He explained that the recently completed Benton High School renovation includes a similar structure, which is also planned for the UALR-Benton structure that proponents hope can be built within the next few years.
"This is a great marketing tool," James said. "This is something that will identify Benton to other people."
He explained that the events center proposal received widespread support from the community.
Mattingly noted that the hotel to be built to adjoin the center is the first new facility of this type to be built in 26 years.
The events center is expected to be completed in about a year and the hotel project has been forecast to take around 18 months, Cornwell said.
Pryor commended city leaders for spearheading these projects.
"These are really big and great for this area," he said.
He noted that it is "helpful for me to actually see these things" as they develop.
Mattingly thanked Pryor for his continued support of the area.
"I love to see all of you working together to make these things happen," Pryor said.
Baptist invited Pryor to attend the grand opening when the events center is completed.
After his tour of the various projects, Pryor attended a meeting of the Benton-Bauxite Rotary Club, where he was the featured speaker.