BY LEANN DILBECK –
The State Parks & Tourism Commission gathered today for their regular monthly meeting at DeGray State Park; whereupon, they heard a formal request from District 20 State Representative Nate Bell for the Commission to “take action” regarding the on-going renovation project at Queen Wilhelmina State Lodge that has suffered numerous delays.
Sources close to the construction process said a Project Meeting was held yesterday in which it was revealed that the exterior of the building is nearing completion but continuing issues with mold spores have caused the project timeline to now be off, and although it is early, it is speculated the project will once again be delayed. One of the main issues, sources say, is trouble receiving authorization of payment from Travelers Insurance, the surety of the bond.
Bill Barnes, a member of the Commission, commended Bell for his report during today’s meeting and told The Pulse, “I’m extremely frustrated at the progress and disappointed that we are continuing to find deficiencies inside the building left from Wade.” Barnes said he and all the Commissioners agree that “this can’t continue.”
Barnes explained that one reason for the delay in payments from Travelers is that there are unexpected expenses due to what Barnes said was weather deterioration as a result of how “Wade left the building uncared for and exposed.”
For example, Barnes cited damage to windows that had to be replaced from not being installed correctly and problems with the fire suppression plumbing that also suffered damage from the weather.
Barnes said a second factor is that the mold mitigation plan has not been applied as quickly as planned.
He explained that when you have all of these factors not moving according to plan, you have further delays of getting approvals from all the appropriate authorities. What needs to be done and what is the goal of the Commission, Barnes said, is to get Nabholz, who he has tremendous respect for, State Parks, Travelers all sitting down together and finding a way to better streamline critical decisions. “What would expedite the whole project is to have a rep from Travelers actually on-site so that decisions can be approved and in process with a 12 to 24 hour turn around.”
The Commission was grateful to have representation from the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Insurance at the meeting today. “We need rapid progress and to get this project wrapped up.”
The lodge closed its doors in March 2012 for the much anticipated $6.7 million renovation but has been plagued with multiple delays that resulted in the State terminating its contract with W.A.I., effective August 30, 2013 and ultimately forcing a meeting of the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting in Mena. At which time State Parks Executive Director Richard Davies explained to the legislators the complexity of the process that caused yet further delay, citing that for both Travelers and WAI, it was in their “financial best interest to oppose the termination.” Davies explained simply that negotiating the complex issue down to the final 35-page Take-Over Agreement took time.
At that same meeting, 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. Arkansas State Parks Director Greg Butts estimated another 45 to 60 days will be needed after the completion date. Financial incentives are provided within the agreement for Nabholz to complete the job before November 30, 2014 and penalties for any delays. At that time, Butts was confident that the lodge would re-open early 2015.
Following today’s meeting, it appears that an investigation will be launched by the Department of Insurance in collaboration with the State’s Attorney General’s office into authorization of payment delays by Travelers. Bell posted via Facebook the following: “After discussion with representatives from the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Insurance, the Commission voted unanimously to request that the Department of Insurance investigate Travelers Insurance regarding their failure to keep the project on schedule and the continued lack of timely decision making on critical path items on the project.”
The lodge is considered the crown-jewel of the local tourism industry and in west-central Arkansas. The delays in completion have a documented economic impact of a loss of $11.2 million to Mena and the surrounding tourism industry.
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