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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — A business jet is towed from a hangar at North Little Rock Municipal Airport in this 2018 file photo. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Upgrades to North Little Rock Municipal Airport to make it a destination instead of an isolated spot on the city's northern edge will go before the City Council tonight with a restaurant back in the plans, along with a higher price tag, according to the project's latest proposal.

Mayor Joe Smith is sponsoring a resolution asking the council's approval of a $4.5 million revenue bond for a new terminal building, a corporate aircraft hangar, a restaurant and expanded parking for the airport at 8200 Remount Road. The proposal also adds another $1.1 million from the recent sale of city property to help finance the $5.77 million project.

In late February, council members approved the city's "intent" to issue $4 million in bonds, a move to allow Smith to seek more detailed plans and more specific costs. At that point, the project had removed plans for a restaurant and its estimated $1 million cost. The newest estimate lists the restaurant cost at $1.125 million.

Both Smith and airport director Clay Rogers said their thoughts swung the other way when Homer's, already with a pair of established Little Rock restaurants, expressed interest in leasing space for a Homer's at the North Little Rock airport. To include the restaurant, and cut down on the higher cost of $7.07 million, a 60-by-65-foot aircraft hangar and two T-hangars were deleted from the plans.

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"We weren't going to do a restaurant until we had a commitment from a reputable, successful restaurateur," Smith said. "We got that with Homer's. We needed a restaurant to make that place a destination."

Homer Connell opened the original Homer's at 2001 E. Roosevelt Road in 1986. Homer's West, at 9700 N. Rodney Parham Road, began in 2012. Homer Connell died in 2016.

Son David Connell, representing Homer's West, wrote in a letter to Smith of being "very excited and motivated" about the company's intent to obtain a term lease to place a Homer's in the new airport fixed-base-operations building.

"That changed the outlook on it, so it's not an abstract concept anymore, but we have somebody who said, 'yeah, we'll lease the space and run a restaurant and think we will be successful,'" Rogers said. "That kind of changed everybody's opinion."

"The restaurant was always kind of something we wanted and something we thought would really tie everything together, and something we thought would go a long way in bringing in more transient aircraft and more based aircraft," Rogers said of the proposal.

The other $1.1 million for the project is proposed to come from the sale of several city-owned properties north of East Broadway to Bruce Oakley Inc. The sale was approved Feb. 12 by the council.

The airport's lack of a modern aviation center, Smith has said, is a drawback to North Little Rock corporate executives flying in clients who are considering doing business in the city. A restaurant would provide corporate pilots -- who arrange at what airport a plane will land -- with a place to lounge and eat while waiting to take off again.

The North Little Rock airport, opened in 1960, has been criticized for its outdated facilities and lack of space for additional hangars to attract more corporate jets, which would mean more leases and more fuel sales for the airport.

"I think this has the wow factor and the look we wanted," Rogers told the North Little Rock Airport Commission on Thursday after presenting the new plans to commissioners. "I think this will be a game-changer for the airport. I think this is what we had in mind when we started this."

Some City Council members expressed reluctance early this year at the airport's proposal, and two did so again last week.

"I haven't changed my thoughts on a restaurant going out there," member Charlie Hight said. In February, he had spoken against having a restaurant at the airport. "I'm glad I'm not the one putting a restaurant out there. It's isolated."

Council Member Debi Ross said Friday that she still didn't have the information she had requested, so she hasn't made a decision on the proposal. She is also concerned, she said, with adding to an earlier $10 million bond meant for the new $30 million police and courts building, tentatively named the Justice Building.

"I want to know the length of the bond, the bond information, how much is that going to increase our bond payment for the Justice Building," Ross said. "I just don't have that. On the $1.1 million for the restaurant, I don't know if that's for the shell or if it's fully furnished. Are we putting in all the equipment?

"I just don't have enough information," she said. "I'm waiting. There are too many questions right now."

Smith conceded Friday that he didn't know if the proposal has the council support he needs to call it for a vote Monday.

"I think it'll end up at $5.6 million," Smith said of the total cost, which would include the $1.1 million from the property sale. "All I'm asking the council to do is to have $4.5 million in the bond issue and we'll make up the difference in value engineering or cutting something out."

Metro on 07/22/2019

Print Headline: NLR airport revisits plans for restaurant; interest from local eatery bolsters project

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