Hog in a Poke

Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — “So Crystal, you were there in Morrilton this morning?

“Looking for a good price on Petit Jean ham, but all I could find were University of Arkansas trustees. Saw them going for the poke as well as the pig.”

“That may have been the sale of the century,” I said, “the 21st century, and we have 92 years to go.”

The famous Fayetteville philanthropist Crystal Britches flew her helicopter to the west-central Arkansas town where UA System trustees were holding a regularly scheduled meeting, to which this week was added the Fayetteville School District’s offer of its high school for $59 million. The forecast threatened storms so she wore her eponymous rain gear, but over khaki shorts and a BBBBQ T-shirt due to the June heat.

Today, the UA System countered at $50 million. In a season of budget crunches, this is a lot of money, but UA-Fayetteville suggested paying for the 56-year-old building sitting on 40 acres with student fees.

And also by leasing the property back to the district.

Crystal Britches, unlike most of the area’s other royalty, is honest about the price her infrequent but sizable donations carry: her opinion. The more famous ones — your Waltons, Hunts, Walkers, Blairs — have the organizations figure out what’s in their best interest, perhaps reserving a seat on the board, being on the quick-dial of the executive director, and naming privileges — but Britches drops her name from the deal in exchange for outspokenness. Nonprofits have to be pretty desperate when they pay a call on Crystal.

This leaves her plenty of time outside of managing her investments to free-lance her concerns.

“Two problems, Mister Journalist: Does the university need the property? And is building a spanking new high school in Fayetteville sewn up?”

“You know I’m just a desk man, Miss Crystal, so all I can do is quote. State Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, says UA doesn’t need this land and building, being next to the athletic fields and far from classrooms, and for that kind of money.”

“Yet Trustee Jim Lindsey noted this morning how unique the offer was, and of course he’s right, too. How many intact, large, adjacent parcels are not yet spoken for by the university?” she said.

The School Board put the campus on the block because even in the absence of a vote or a reputable poll it believes the city needs and wants a new high school, either built on that site or at a new site. Talk of adding a second high school as Springdale did two years ago with Har-Ber and Rogers will do this fall with Heritage, gets shot down.

“What will happen, Crystal, if the School Board and UA settle on a dollar figure, then citizens vote against the tax increase needed to pay the balance for a new Fayetteville High School, estimated between $92 million and $110 million?”

“The plan is to lease the school back for a while. But UA in buying the property is, one of these years, going to want to use it. Renting is what mere grad students do; after my second master’s degree I started buying condos near whatever campus I was attending,” said the self-made near-billionaire. “Ben, Fayetteville kids will be going to school somewhere, not cruising and working at the mall year-round, surely.”

“Yeah. With no one speaking up about the school staying put — there are lots of older, viable high schools — or making this a two-high school city, today’s UA action is inevitable,” I said.

“Be proud of Fayetteville, hun’. There aren’t many places that can off-load a falling-apart building on the state of Arkansas for millions of dollars and no discussion. It used to only be Little Rock.”

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