Whirlpool, city street work draw criticism at Fort Smith Board session

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 208 views 

Fort Smith Director Tracy Pennartz took Whirlpool representatives to task at the Tuesday (Oct. 13) study session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors and also began the process of dissecting the city’s Five-Year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for the streets, drainage, and associated drainage sales tax program.

First in the crosshairs was Jeff Noel, Whirlpool’s corporate vice president of communications and public affairs, who was discussing plans for the abandoned manufacturing site, when Pennartz pressed him for a timeline on redevelopment.

Noel acknowledged that simply “keeping a For Sale sign out” would not make the property more attractive to buyers with its “rundown” look in the wake of the company’s departure and the discovery of chemical contamination by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).

“I do feel really good with what we’ve done so far, but I do think we need a vision and some clarity with ADEQ as to what are the ongoing activities that need to be done on that site to assure that there are no health concerns. But I agree with you, it doesn’t look good today,” he said.

“I’m glad you agree with me,” Pennartz responded, “but I guess what I’m asking for is some timeline of your vision. Are we talking 15 to 20 years, are we talking 5 to 8 years, are we talking 3 to 5? Just exactly what are we talking about? What exactly, because you can say you’ve got a vision but until you do it, it’s just a vision.”

Noel said that he didn’t have a “crystal ball,” but he believed the next steps would be “step one, give a better vision of what it could look like. Then, I can come back and talk about the steps that will be done or what could be done over the next couple of years to advance that vision forward and to reach some clarity with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality on what will happen on that site, and to know what road improvements will look like and when those timelines will take place.”

“I believe then, we can get more specific,” Noel added.

Pennartz said it sounded like everything would take five years, and that she “would like to see some type of timeline,” to which Noel responded, “Gotcha.”

During Tuesday’s presentation, Noel did offer some insights as to what the company envisioned for the property, including “strategic demolition” around the 1.1 million square feet of the main manufacturing facility. He also felt that they would work to retain as much of the 39-foot ceilings as possible as those could be attractive to other manufacturing or distribution centers and that it would be too costly to replicate from scratch.

He also believed the smaller surrounding buildings, ranging from 11,000 to 60,000 square feet could be good for “smaller and mid-sized users for manufacturing or operational locations.”

In April, Whirlpool officials said they had paid more than $3 million to property owners harmed by pollution around the manufacturing plant, and had settled claims with all but two property owners near the plant. Noel reiterated these two unsettled cases on Tuesday, naming them as the River of Life Church and Bost Human Development Service, though he did feel “confident” in how those two negotiations were progressing.

Whirlpool closed the refrigerator manufacturing plant in June 2012, and later that year it was made public that trichloroethyclene – a cancer-causing chemical – was found in and around the plant. The company has monitored and removed some chemicals, with oversight of the work handled by the ADEQ, which issued its first remedial action plan in December 2013.

Noel and Mike Ellis, an engineer with Environ who was in attendance Tuesday, told the Fort Smith Board of Directors in January that TCE levels had decreased around the Fort Smith plant. Environ is consulting Whirlpool in the cleanup effort. According to Tuesday’s report, Whirlpool has installed 169 “membrane interface probes” to screen soil and groundwater, 88 soil probes for soil and groundwater sampling, 111 monitoring wells, and eight “South Sentinel” wells.

Whirlpool initially sought a groundwater well ban in response to the discovery of TCE, but public outcry and ADEQ involvement resulted in more extensive and expensive work by the company to address the issue. The company’s timeline and progress can be monitored through the WhirlpoolFortSmith website.

Also Tuesday, Pennartz set sights on some of the priorities as determined in the city’s CIP for streets, bridges, and associated drainage. She was particularly concerned with the lack of progress on the widening of Arkansas 45 south of Zero Street (around Planters Road), noting that there hadn’t been any movement on the plan in at least 14 years and per the proposed plan presented by Stan Snodgrass, the city’s director of engineering, the $200,000 project would be delayed until 2020.

Pennartz acknowledged Snodgrass’ explanation that the state of Arkansas and Sebastian County would have to be involved for anything to get done, but saw it in the city’s best interests to spearhead the conversation.

“Since we know that it behooves us to initiate the conversation with these two other parties, that’s what we should do. To just put your head in the sand on this issue is not the appropriate way to attack it,” Pennartz said.

Pennartz also agreed with City Director Keith Lau that the city should not take on the $1.1 million cost of street and drainage improvements for a 50-55 unit single family and duplex development to be located on the former Red Barn property along Newlon Road.

The Fort Smith Housing Authority (FSHA) is developing the site, and while it’s yet to be determined if the FSHA will pay real estate taxes on the development, Lau could not justify spending $1.1 million, especially if there was a “no-turn on taxes for 30 years.” Pennartz recommended reallocating that $1.1 million to street overlays and reconstruction – a consideration that will be up for discussion when the Board takes on the CIP at its Oct. 20 meeting.

Finally, Pennartz took aim at some of the generalities in Snodgrass’ budget, asking for further delineation on a $2.6 million line item that he had marked simply as “Engineering Dept. and Other Depts.,” and critiquing, “That’s like just lumping $2.6 million into what category and saying, ‘Other.’”

The CIP projects $180.96 million in revenue and $149.294 million in expenses through 2020. Revenue is largely derived from the one-cent sales tax approved by voters in the spring of 2015.