Joel Gardner, executive director for Springdale-based transit provider Ozark Regional Transit, looked at a brown spot in the ceiling tile above his desk and said that’s probably not a water leak.
It’s more likely caused by a squirrel or bird that’s found its way into the building through a hole.
“We’ve looked at all these stain areas, and we find nests up there,” Gardner said. “We don’t find water leaks from the roofline. We find the holes where these small creatures are getting in.
“When a snake comes out of the wall in the middle of the building, you know he got in there from a wall from the edge of the building.”
Critter intrusion is but one of a plethora of issues plaguing ORT’s administrative office that was built in the 1970s. Outside of Gardner’s window, however, construction workers are building a new office to replace the existing one.
Work started Feb. 24 on a $2.89 million project to build an 8,600-square-foot administrative office at 2423 E. Robinson Ave. It’s under construction between Robinson Avenue, or U.S. Highway 412 East, and the existing 7,000-square-foot office.
“The contractor asked me one day why are you so excited to see concrete getting poured, and I’m like, ‘Because I’ve been working on this for five years,’” Gardner said.
The new building is being paid for with a $2.9 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration that was awarded in September 2018. It was the third consecutive year that ORT had applied for the grant. ORT will use the land on which the existing office is located for the required 20% match for the grant.
ORT staff plan to move into the new office in late October before the second phase of work starts. The second phase includes the removal of the existing office building, and it will be replaced with a parking lot. Also, a covered patio is expected to be added onto the south side of the new office building.
Both phases of the project should be completed in early 2021, and Gardner hopes to host a ceremony to celebrate its completion.
The building should be large enough to sustain ORT for 40 years and have room to add between eight and 10 more staff. It also would allow for ORT to support more than 100 drivers on rotating shifts. ORT has about 85 employees, including nearly 65 drivers.
Gardner explained if ORT meets its 10-year goals for expansion, the next project would be to add paved parking for its expanded bus fleet. ORT has 5 more acres on which it can expand on its 10-acre lot.
He said the new building will be a better use of space, have more efficient heating and cooling and energy-saving lighting. After the project is completed, ORT might look to install a solar array to reduce its energy demand on the grid.
“We will have a great roofline that will be southern facing that if we could panel up, and even if we got 60% of our consumption through those panels, that would be great,” he said. “The majority of everything we’re doing most days is lights, and if we can bank that through the sun, that’d be great.”
Lowell-based Oelke Construction Co. is the general contractor for the project, and Fort Smith-based Tim A. Risley and Associates is the designer.
Gardner said the construction workers have put in extra effort. They come to work on days that it rains and stop when it starts to pour. But as soon as it’s done raining, he said they return to work.
Robert Gonzalez, project superintendent for Oelke Construction, said the rain has been the biggest challenge recently.
“The work has been good so far, even with the [COVID-19] pandemic and places being shut down or limited, we have been able to make good progress,” Gonzalez said. “As with any new construction, the biggest challenge is getting it out of the ground and getting the building vertical. That is where the rain affects us.”
Between five and 15 people have been working on the project depending on needs and the schedule, he said.
Some of the unique features of the project include the exposed trusses in the production room to allow for “a tall and open feel,” Gonzalez noted. And, the exterior will have different types of finishes, including brick, metal and wood.
Other issues with the existing office building include flooding, space limitations and a lack of men’s and women’s restrooms.
The area around the building often floods as it is in a low-water area compared to Highway 412, Gardner said. When the highway was rebuilt, the grade was raised to be about 2 feet above ORT’s floor level, and depending on the amount of rain, water has entered the building.
Gardner said the existing office allows for no growth, and if ORT were to add another office employee, it would not have any room for that person. ORT has space on the second floor of the existing building, but he explained the floor has load-bearing issues with how its structure was built. The floor would need to be removed and raised, he said.
The new building is expected to allow for growth along with the development of transit in Northwest Arkansas, he said.
“We will have an area where drivers can actually lounge between shifts or before shift or after shift,” Gardner added. “We will have an area where they will have lockers for their personal belongings as they come and go from work.”
Another spacing issue regards its board meetings, as ORT doesn’t have enough room to host them. The most recent meeting was hosted via Zoom, but before the pandemic, the meetings were taking place at the office of Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission. The new building is expected to have the room to host board meetings on-site.
Another issue has been the lack of men’s and women’s restrooms that the new building will have. The existing building has three restrooms that can only accommodate one person at a time and are not handicapped accessible. The men’s and women’s restrooms in the new building will not only allow for multiple people and be handicapped accessible, but they also will be storm shelters.
“Those bathrooms are actually going to be hardpoints as tornado shelters for us,” said Jeff Hatley, public information officer for ORT. “We can go in there, and they are bigger than this little bunker we have.”
Hatley recalled when a tornado was on its way, but no one wanted to use the existing storm shelter because of the fear of the brown recluse spiders.
“It’s like pick your poison,” Hatley said. “Do you want to weather out the storm or do you want to go down there with a bunch of brown recluses?”
And the brown recluses aren’t limited to the existing storm shelter. Gardner said he kills them throughout the office weekly.
“This thing has led a long and illustrious life,” he said. “It’s time to turn it into a parking lot.”