By Tia Lyons
EL DORADO — After some discussion Thursday, the El Dorado Works Board agreed on a funding request that was supported by Mayor Frank Hash to bolster the water infrastructure at Mellor Park Mall to make way for new and expanding businesses there.
Hash said the situation had become murky and boiled down to a question of who was responsible for the fire hydrants at the mall: the El Dorado Water Utilities or the property owner, Multi-State Holdings.
Multi-State is based in Effingham, Illinois, and is owned and operated by Dr. Surendra Agarwal and his son Sajal Agarwal.
The mayor explained that replacing two missing fire hydrants at Mellor Park Mall is required to accommodate a new Hobby Lobby and the expansion of an existing discount store, Dollar Tree.
The News-Times previously reported that Hobby Lobby will move into the Dollar Tree space, and discount retailer will relocate within Mellor Park Mall.
Hash said Thursday that the expansion and incoming business are expected to bring 50 to 70 new jobs.
The two hydrants would cost about $4,200 each and would be installed by the water utilities, who would be reimbursed for the hydrants with the city’s economic development tax.
A vigorous debate ensued, with the El Dorado Works Board ultimately agreeing to the request upon the assurance that the city will address the matter.
Chairman Robert Reynolds was not able to attend the meeting due to a family emergency out of town.
EWB treasurer Alan Gober broached the topic, referring to a letter that had been sent from the property owners to Hash, requesting that the city handle the water infrastructure issue.
Hash said two fire hydrants on the property had been run over by vehicles. They lay on the ground for some time, but they were later removed from the property.
Neither the property owner nor the water utilities removed the hydrants, Hash said.
He said the issue grew fuzzier when Multi-State Holdings hooked Hobby Lobby and said the hydrants would need to be replaced so that the mall space could be certified for the new business.
“We got into a chicken-or-the-egg thing as to who owns the fire hydrants. The mall said it’s infrastructure and the water company said they’re not responsible for the fire hydrants because the mall is on
private property,” Hash said.
Hash said that when a development project in the city is completed, the city typically assumes responsibility for the infrastructure, including streets, water and wastewater.
Mark Smith, general manager, said later Thursday evening that he was unaware that the issue was going to come up during the EWB meeting.
“Had I known, I would have been there,” he said.
Smith explained that the EWU has long stood by a policy in which it is not responsible for fire hydrants that it did not install on private property.
“There are a number of utilities around the city that are similar to that. Walmart (Supercenter) is one,” Smith said. “These contractors build these buildings, and they approach the (El Dorado Fire Department) to determine what kind of system is involved.”
“The water utilities, to my knowledge, has never taken responsibility for fire hydrants that were installed by someone else,” Smith said.
Smith said he was aware of the problem with vehicles running into the fire hydrants at the mall, adding that he understands the property owners’ frustration with the issue,
He said bollards could be placed around the hydrants.
During the EWB meeting, Hash said that to clear the air, the city should replace the fire hydrants, considering the investment Multi-State is making to improve the interior and exterior of the mall.
“I’m desperate for this, and the city has been desperate for the refurbishment of the mall,” Hash said.
He also noted that the city has used its economic development sales taxes to install water and wastewater infrastructure for incoming businesses, including Hugg and Hall and prospects at the business park on Champagnolle Road.
Greg Downum, vice-chairman of the EWB, expressed concern about the precedent that would be set if the city installed the hydrants at the request of the property owner.
Downum also said that if the city knew who was responsible for the damaged hydrants, the EWU could have salvaged them before they were taken away from the property.
“Unless we actively address it, we will be in the same place if it happens again,” Downum said.
Hash said that a policy could be put in place after the new hydrants are installed.
The mayor also said that if the city knew who struck the hydrants, the city could have pursued legal action.
Alderman Billy Blann asked if the hydrants could be barricaded to help protect them from such accidents, and Hash said the matter was already under consideration.
Former Alderman Tony Henry asked who was responsible for maintaining the hydrants, and Hash said the fire department tests all of the city’s hydrants in a one-year cycle.
Fire Chief Chad Mosby said the replacement of the two hydrants would adequately cover the fire protection that would be needed for mall with the addition of Hobby Lobby and the Dollar Tree expansion.
Referring to the EWU policy regarding hydrants installed on private property, Mosby said that in such projects, the hydrants are part of the building’s fire protection system and included in design plans for construction.
Gober said during the EWB meeting that the need for the fire hydrants represented a public safety issue for the mall, store employees and customers.
“This isn’t about the water utilities or the owners of the mall,” he said, adding that the retail development will also boost sales tax revenue in the city.
Gober and Blann also said that the hydrants were likely installed when Mellor Park Mall was built in the early 1970s.
Gober recommended that the funding for the hydrants be taken from the commercial and retail development category of the El Dorado Works tax structure.
Five percent of revenues from the sales tax were dedicated to such projects.
Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or by email at tlyons@ eldoradonews.com.