BY TAMMY KEITH
The Faulkner County Natural Resource Center on Amity Road in Conway, which has had dwindling occupancy since the Farm Service Agency moved out in 2012, is being sold for $2.2 million to Antioch Baptist Church.
The church, the center’s neighbor to the north on Amity Road, has rented 5,000 square feet of the 30,000-square-foot facility for the past four years. The building is owned by the Faulkner County Conservation District.
Rocky Harrell of Mayflower, chairman of the conservation district board, said the group felt a financial strain after the county’s Farm Service Agency office was closed.
“Once our clientele dwindled down, we tried to do something else,” Harrell said.
Just over half the Faulkner County Natural Resource Center is occupied — approximately 17,000 square feet.
The Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service will move Aug. 8 to the former Faulkner County Courts Building on Faulkner Street in downtown Conway.
Harrell said rumors of future consolidation of government agencies, plus the financial pinch, spurred the board to decide to sell the building.
“Rather than wait till we have to do something, we had the opportunity to do
something,” Harrell said.
He said the board advertised for bids on the resource center and only received one, from Antioch Baptist Church.
Pastor Jason Aultman said the church needs more space for programs.
“We were going to have to make some future plans as far as whether we were going to lease long-term, build something separate, … and if they ended up selling, if we’d find ourselves in a bind,” Aultman said.
He said the student ministry is housed in the resource center, and it is used by the Hispanic congregation.
“Hopefully, it will give them a little more space to adequately house those ministries,” Aultman said.
The sale had not been finalized as of press time.
Aultman said he talked with Harrell “over the course of several months” about buying the building.
The two parties negotiated to come to the $2.2 million price, Harrell said. He said the conservation district owes about $2 million on the building.
“It came down just to financial aspects of the whole thing,” Harrell said. “We got to be more where we were landlords than conservation officers.”
The center, which opened in 2006, cost $2.6 million. The property was paid for with $300,000 from the Arkansas Legislature, and five years’ worth of a countywide, voluntary 1-mill property tax for the conservation district was used “as collateral” for a loan, Harrell said.
Former Faulkner County Judge Preston Scroggin said the building was supposed to be “one-stop shopping” for farmers, ranchers and landowners.
“The whole premise of that building was to serve the agriculture community and the backyard gardeners and hobbyists,” he said.
Scroggin fought to keep the Farm Service Agency from moving to the Conway County office in Morrilton, but the agency made the move.
An emotional public hearing about the closure of the office was held in 2011 in the resource center.
Linda Newkirk, state executive director for the Farm Service Agency, told the audience that the 2008 farm bill required consolidation of Farm Service offices within 20 miles of each other with two or fewer employees. Two were left in Faulkner County after executive director Sam Parker retired. The office was moved to Morrilton.
“When that one domino fell, it caused the others to fall,” Scroggin said last week.
The Rural Development Office, which was open only about 10 hours a week, closed just before the Farm Service Agency left.
Harrell agreed that the original premise of a “one-stop shopping” center failed.
“Because of consolidations and cutbacks and the economics of it, what our initial goal was — the one-stop shop — was not happening anymore,” Harrell said. “As a result of it, we were maintaining, but not gaining, as far as paying for the building. An opportunity came about as the result of Antioch Baptist Church’s interest in it.”
The building has only four occupants, including Antioch Baptist Church and the Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service, which uses 4,300 square feet for free.
Scroggin said that was part of the original agreement.
“That [free rent] was part of the agreement when the tax went on in the ’90s, to move the extension service out of the courthouse. They were in the basement,” Scroggin said. He was on the Faulkner County District Conservation Board in the early 1990s and 2000s, he said.
Kami Marsh, agriculture agent, said the extension service is moving because of the timing of the county building becoming available in downtown Conway. It is empty after the courts moved into the new Faulkner County Justice Building on German Lane.
Legacy Gardens, planted in front of the resource center and maintained by the Faulkner County Master Gardeners, will continue to be taken care of by the group, she said.
The other agencies in the Faulkner County Natural Resource Center are U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which rents about 5,000 square feet; the Natural Resource Conservation Service, in which an employee of the conservation district works, 2,700 square feet; and Antioch Baptist Church, 5,000 square feet.
Those agencies have leases that end in October 2015, Harrell said.
It will be up to the church to decide what to do after that.
Aultman said no one is being rushed.
“Part of the arrangement on the purchase of it was all the existing lease contracts would be honored. It’s not a situation where anyone is being told, ‘Hit the road,’” Aultman said.
Scroggin said even though he is no longer part of the conservation district board, he doesn’t agree with closing the Faulkner County Farm Service Agency and what ensued.
“I’m retired but still think it was a bad deal for the ag community in Faulkner County,” he said. “I don’t think the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] realizes the implication of what they’ve done.”
Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson said he thinks the conservation board did the right thing by selling the building.
“I applaud what they’re doing in terms of being financially responsible and trying to avoid getting the rug pulled out from under them if the federal and state budgets shrink down the road, or that trend continues.
“What we wouldn’t want is for them to be hung with a building they can’t afford to pay for,” Dodson said.
Harrell said the sale of the building will allow the Faulkner County Conservation District to get back to its mission.
The sale of the building “will enable us to do more conservation-grant projects in the county,” he said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.