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Robinson Center Upgrade Budgeted at $68.6 Million, On Track for 2016

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Details of the proposed renovation and additions to Little Rock’s Robinson Center Auditorium were revealed Tuesday at a luncheon hosted at the center.

According to Gretchen Hall, director of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors’ Bureau, and other representatives of the project, the work is budgeted at $68.6 million — with $60 million of that being actual building costs — and if plans are on track, will be completed by 2016. The building’s size will increase to 138,000 SF from 133,500 SF.

“We are very excited to be able to roll out these schematic plans with our design team,” Hall said.

The building is being designed by Polk Stanley Wilcox of Little Rock and Ennead Architects LLP of New York City. Construction will be performed by CDI Contractors of Little Rock.

The work will include:

  • Restoring and renovating the existing 1939 exterior.
  • Re-working audience entrances.
  • Improving performance hall acoustics and seating.
  • Upgrading the loading area.
  • Building an entirely new conference center and grand hall on the north side of the structure.

Audience entrance work will involve building a multi-level lobby around the existing historic lobby with more clear directions. The performance hall will be lowered to overtake the existing conference rooms, which project architects said will augment acoustics, improve visibility and create a more intimate atmosphere.

More: Download the complete renovation presentation (PDF).

Hall noted that the number of seats will actually decrease from 2,600 to 2,120.

The current conference center, in the Robinson’s basement, will be moved to a new wing that will overlook the Arkansas River. The new grand ballroom in this wing will be able to accommodate 400-500 people.

“I’ve always seen the Robinson Auditorium as an anchor to the west because of the Broadway Bridge and I-30,” said architect Reese Rowland of Polk Stanley Wilcox. “As beautiful as a building it is, it was built to face the city. The Robinson actually turns its back to the greatest amenity we have, the Arkansas River.”

The loading bay, which requires blocking two highway lanes and a bridge, will be replaced with a more efficient setup.

Finally, public amenities will be augmented with more restrooms, concession stands and storage areas.

Hall said the project could potentially raise conference center revenue from $150,000 to $315,000 in four years and performance hall revenue from $170,000 to $300,000 in the same time frame.

She also said the project will overlap “as much as possible” with the renovation of the Broadway Bridge.

Hall said the project will be funded by a bond issue through the 2 percent advertising and promotions tax.

“They are getting ready to retire that bond,” she said. “So we are going to the city board and making a presentation today. We will call for a special election to ask voters and citizens of Little Rock to dedicate that 2 percent to pay off a new bond addition. It’s not a new tax, it’s not an extension, it’s simply a dedication of an existing tax.”

The earliest the tax can go before voters is Dec. 10, she said.

Hall noted that outside sources of funding are being sought, but none are confirmed. The bond ordinance, she added, will order the project not to exceed $73.5 million, giving it some leeway over the original budget in case of market fluctuation and other unforeseen issues.

Mark Beach, vice president of CDI, said the price of the project is reasonable.

“New performance halls of this type around the country range in cost from the low $500 per SF to $700 per SF,” he said. “It will be in the mid-$400 on this one.”

If the bond is approved, the auditorium will be closed in July and will reopen in September 2016. Groups using the Robinson as a venue, such as the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, will perform elsewhere during those years.

“It combines something not only historical but a stunning new modern addition,” Hall said. “It’s something Little Rock is not only proud of but absolutely something it deserves.”

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