BY LEANN DILBECK –
The State Agencies and Governmental Affairs House and Senate Committees met in Mena last week to hear directly from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism [ADPT], the governing body of Arkansas State Parks, on multiple delays and a termination of contract with WAI [Wade Abernathy, Inc.]. Also requested to appear before the legislative committees was Wade Abernathy, Jr., President of WAI, who did not attend the meeting because of a prior commitment but sent a written statement via his attorney to committee members. The complete meeting may be viewed on MyPulseNews TV by clicking on this link: http://www.citylinktv.com/archive/house-senate-committee-meeting/.
Abernathy did provide to legislators a 21-page statement of his position on the matter, citing over 80 change orders, weather delays, and over 300 documented days he alleges were spent “waiting on the Architect [Robin Borne] related to Requests for Information dealing with Critical Path items only. Critical Path relates to items required to get the building in the dry.” Abernathy contends that had the contract not been terminated, his firm was on track to having the building completed by January 14, 2014.
The purpose of the meeting was for legislators to get a better understanding of the delays and the termination that resulted and many expressed their extreme disappointment in not getting the opportunity to question both parties. They did, however, have the opportunity to question and hear exciting updates from Richard Davies, Executive Director of Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, and Greg Butts, Director of Arkansas State Parks. Appearing with them was their attorney because of the pending litigation in the case.
In Davies’ opening statement, he said both he and Butts began with their respective departments in the early 1970’s and described the state parks system as “horrible” and said the governor at the time referred to it as a “state-wide embarrassment.” Since that time, Davies credited the works of commissions and the passage of the conservation tax in 1996 to bringing the system back from its brink to now being a system that “Arkansans can be very proud of.” He said through the process there have been many “lessons learned,” namely that there is nothing “iconic about not building something right.”
Davies then explained why they felt compelled to terminate the contract with WAI when it was their own department who had the most immediate loss, citing $3,500 / day in lost revenue not to mention the economic impact to the local area in lost tourism traffic.
“Quite simply, we didn’t feel the contractor was proceeding as he should. Maybe more so, we had little hope that anything was going to get better or change. If we allowed a sub-standard job, we’d suffer now but the real people who would suffer would be the tax-payers, the visitors, the citizens in the next 5 or 10 years, when things started showing up because they weren’t done right… and we didn’t want that to happen on our watch.”
Davies explained that for both Travelers and WAI, it was in their “financial best interest to oppose the termination,” and said negotiating the complex issue down to the final 35-page Take-Over Agreement took time.
Senator Williams questioned Davies about whether a new contractor had been identified and he reported to legislators that Travelers has hired the well-known Arkansas firm of Nabholz to complete the project. Nabholz has provided an estimated completion date of November 30, which Davies said does not include moving in furniture, staff-training, etc. Butts estimated another 45 to 60 days will be needed after the completion date. Davies estimated that it will take 30-days for Nabholz to move onto the site to begin work and another 2-months for the mold remediation process to be completed. Financial incentives are provided within the agreement for Nabholz to complete the job before November 30 and penalties for any delays.
Senator Williams then asked if there would be additional cost to the State of Arkansas of which Davies replied, the cost was in “the lost revenue. The extra cost of construction is on Travelers.”
Bell cited the stagnant growth that the county has endured over the last three years and the importance of tourism in the local economic mix, thus, the community’s interest in seeing the project move forward quickly as well as identify ways to prevent the same issues arising in other communities. “The project was originally scheduled to be a 422-day project and we’re now 22 months into and looking at another 10 [months] so that is why I requested this hearing.”
Davies expressed his department’s frustrations with Travelers in taking 5-months to get a new contractor onto the site when the bond stated that Travelers would have a licensed contractor on the site within 10 days. He said that Travelers explained that it was because the termination was in dispute.
Butts said that in his career, they have only called the bond 6 times in over $250 million of state park jobs, “We don’t take it lightly but we will do it when we feel we have to.”
Details of the “rock” disagreement between state parks and the contractor were cited by Bell and Davies and Butts agreed that the rock issue, along with not providing adequate man-power and equipment, was when the project began to get off schedule.
Legislators stated their displeasure with the length of time that the negotiations took with the Take-Over Agreement with Travelers, of which Davies expressed shared frustrations.
The meeting closed after Butts shared with the legislators many of the exciting features to look forward to at the new lodge, which includes much larger windows throughout the lodge in which to take in the extraordinary panoramic views from Arkansas’ second-highest peak.
The exterior of the lodge will feature shingles and stonework. As part of the building’s energy efficient features, new insulated walls will envelope the current building. The lodge will expand from 26,335 s.f. to 36,538 s.f. to include a new hearth room with fireplace; a completely remodeled lobby, gift shop, and reception/registration desk; two additional guest rooms increasing the total to 40; and each guest room expanded by 8 ft. Four guest rooms on the west end of the first and second floors will include gas fireplaces and spa tubs. Three guest rooms will be barrier-free to meet the needs of visitors with disabilities.
The public restrooms on the first floor will also be enlarged. The upstairs meeting room, which features a stunning beamed ceiling and panoramic windows is also larger and features access to a small balcony overlooking the south view from the mountain.
An elevator is also being installed. The first in the lodge’s history.
Bell told The Pulse, he was disappointed at Abernathy’s absence and said as a result, much of the questioning was “one-sided.” He added that he certainly believed that there was “shared” responsibility in the delays in this project between ADPT and the contractor but said he is very anxious to see some progress now that a new contractor has been named.