Bank Beckons Springdale As Tontitown Fiddles

by Talk Business & Politics ([email protected]) 676 views 

Long known for its outlandish bickering and its boisterous public meetings, Tontitown, rightfully or not, has the reputation of being argumentative and petty to the point of dysfunction.

And Tontitown — making recent headlines for turmoil in its police and fire departments — could pay the price for its history of name-calling, finger-pointing and blame-gaming.

A Tontitown landowner, in this case First Security Bank of Searcy, points to the town’s flair for political theatrics and, through a lawsuit filed late December in Washington County Circuit Court, says it wants to detach and annex its 38-acre foreclosure into neighboring Springdale.

The lawsuit is of big concern for Tontitown because of who is involved and what’s at stake. First Security, at $4.6 billion in total assets, is the state’s fifth-largest bank. And the property, situated on the south side of U.S. 412 between Interstate 49 and Arkansas Highway 112, is not only in one of the region’s busiest corridors, but adjoins the 1,000-acre Ballpark Area/Southwest Springdale Overlay District approved Feb. 24 by the Springdale City Council.

In its suit, First Security claims Tontitown can’t, or won’t, provide adequate city services for the property, which is currently listed for $4.25 million with Flake and Kelley Commercial. In response, Tontitown says the property is adequately served by police, fire, water and sewer, and that the suit should be thrown out of court.

While the property’s future is in the hands of a judge, the property’s past, at least according to First Security, was in large part shaped by a squabbling and ineffective Tontitown City Council. In its Dec. 29 complaint, First Security offered a candid justification for seeking the detachment and annexation.

“Tontitown City Council meetings often erupt into verbal altercations, profanity, and sometimes even threats of physical violence among participants and is otherwise dysfunctional,” the lawsuit reads. “While diverse views and spirited discussions are the hallmarks of a progressive democracy, the type of environment which permeates the Tontitown municipal government combined with the instability and unpredictability of the Tontitown municipal government, deter serious buyers with projects from considering developments or projects in Tontitown.”


Raging Fire

Real estate broker Clint Penzo, a lifelong Tontitown resident and a former alderman who was narrowly defeated by Paul Colvin in last year’s mayoral election, knows all too well the hazards of municipal life along Henri de Tonti Boulevard.

Penzo said there are entrenched factions in the town of 2,625, and once in the public domain, the pressure and expectations are immense.

“I didn’t know it was as bad as it is until I was elected,” he said. “When I got into office [in 2013], the conflict began immediately. It’s, ‘You’re on my side or you’re on their side.’ There are many nights I had a hard time sleeping after a City Council meeting, but that’s politics, I guess.”

Penzo was in office when, due to a contractual impasse, the City Council dumped the longstanding volunteer Tontitown Area Fire Department and replaced it with a city department. Issues of staffing, funding and equipment have dogged the transition from the old department to the new, and in February, fire chief Lance Secor, citing vendetta and immorality within city government, abruptly resigned. 

All along, First Security was watching.

“Due to apparent internal politics, Tontitown unilaterally abrogated its contract with the [Tontitown Area Fire Department] and instead decided to attempt to create its own municipal fire department,” the suit reads. “Tontitown’s new municipal fire department is inadequate to meet the needs of the citizens of Tontitown, and does not approach the level of service previously provided by the [Tontitown Area Fire Department].”

Former mayor Jack Beckford and former police chiefs Kris Arthur and Denny Upton have all been subpoenaed to appear at a March 19 deposition, and to arrive with any and all documents, including emails and text messages, regarding police, fire and ambulance protection, and other Tontitown municipal services.

Penzo, himself a member of the new fire department, said he wouldn’t be surprised if mayor Colvin and the City Council decide to reinstall the old volunteer department, adding yet another layer to the ongoing saga of fire protection in Tontitown. 

Saying he was painted as a villain during the election because he supported the new fire department and not the volunteers, Penzo admitted that Tontitown politics can be corrosive.

“I wish it was not as hostile as it is,” he said.

Meanwhile, the territorial integrity of Tontitown is at stake.

“You start taking chunks and it will keep moving,” Penzo said. “It could be the breach in the dam. It could be devastating for Tontitown.”


Stable and Progressive

Sitting on the sideline, but eager to join the game, is Springdale. On Sept. 23, the City Council passed an ordinance stating “Springdale, Arkansas, desires to detach and annex the following described property currently located in the city of Tontitown …”

And mayor Doug Sprouse recently issued a statement reinforcing the city’s position.

“For Springdale’s part, we fully support the efforts of the property owner as demonstrated by passing an ordinance to that effect,” he said.

According to the suit, brought under Title 14 of the Arkansas Code, if and when First Security is annexed by Springdale, the property could easily be linked into the city’s water system via the main collector on Watkins Street near Arvest Ballpark and the interchange at I-49 and the Don Tyson Parkway.

In its suit, First Security gave a glowing assessment of Springdale and its capabilities.

“By comparison [to Tontitown], the city of Springdale does offer the necessary services to create improvements, subdivide, and otherwise maximize the use and value of First Security’s property, including but not limited to, adequate police, fire, ambulance, water and sewer, public street infrastructure, a stable and progressive city government to promote and support said services, and is otherwise able to immediately furnish the requested services to the property,” the suit says.

In a letter dated Aug. 22, the bank informed Tontitown that it wanted out and why. From that point, under state law Tontitown had 30 days to commit to improvements and up to 180 days to actually start making them. In particular, the bank wanted Tontitown to build an access road — an extension of Jones Road — leading to the undeveloped southern portion of the property.

Tontitown responded to the bank’s written request within 30 days, but according to First Security’s suit, the response was a “non-responsive response” described by the bank as a “commitment to, perhaps, make a commitment, which falls short of what is required under the statute.”

Through its attorney, Nicholas Corcoran, Tontitown said it had “already made all of the requested services available to the requested property.” Moreover, Tontitown said that if the bank finds Tontitown’s services are lacking, then it needs to “include a more definite statement that specifically describes the nature and scope of each perceived inadequacy.”

Alderman Tommy Granata, who has been on the City Council since January, is also a former mayor who resigned three times while in office, finally calling it quits for good in January 2013. Having healed from the backbiting and infighting that plagued his mayoralty, he said he decided to run again last year.

“I believe we have adequate water and sewer,” Granata said. “There are plenty of other businesses, and no one else is complaining. I don’t know why this property is any different.”

Granata also pointed to the possibility that a new day has dawned in Tontitown. Last year, voters dissolved the Planning Commission and created a Planning Board. The vote was a de facto ouster of Planning Commission chairman Mick Wagner, seen by Granata and others as a malignant tumor metastasizing through Tontitown.

Will Wagner’s departure from city government make a difference in how Tontitown is perceived and how it performs?

“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Granata said.


Regional Attraction

Paul Colvin became mayor of Tontitown in January. In the two months since he took the oath of office, he has seen his share of controversies.

For unspecified reasons, he fired police chief Kris Arthur in January. As Arthur vowed to take legal action, Arthur’s replacement, Denny Upton, had to resign due to a conflict with state retirement guidelines. Colvin finally settled on Joe McCormick as interim chief.

After the police drama subsided, fire chief Secor resigned. Soon after that, recorder-treasurer Alicia Collins — whose appointment by the City Council triggered Granata’s resignation back in 2013 — was arrested and charged with theft of property and theft of services for allegedly taking more than $25,000 in water and sewer funds, and for applying credits to her personal water and sewer bill.

And now, as mayor, Colvin must deal with the First Security suit, even though it was not of his making.

“I can’t apologize for previous administrations,” he said, referring to the fact he was not in office when the suit was filed.

While the First Security property has plenty of potential, not much is happening there these days. The northern portion of the property has over 85,000 SF of office and retail space, but much of it is vacant and outdated. The site is perhaps best known for the night club Padrissimo Discotech, which in the mid-2000s was the source of numerous noise complaints.

The adjoining two properties on the east side of the First Security tract are owned by C.L. George and Sons.

Colvin said he has no clue as to why First Security is trying to annex into Springdale.

“The question is, ‘Why do they want it?’” he said. “Do they have plans for the property? I can’t tell you the bank’s motives or Springdale’s motives. All necessary services are being provided at this time.”