Extensive environmental remediation will likely be needed before any plans for repurposing the former Army and Navy General Hospital can be considered, officials said Monday.
A recent tour of the 200,000-square-foot building and more than 30 accessory structures on the 20-acre campus of the Arkansas Career Training Institute revealed a laundry list of liabilities, according to the committee The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce formed to consider the building's future after the federal government shutters it at the end of the year.
The state residential program that provides job training to young adults with disabilities ends Sept. 30. ACTI's last residential class graduates Sept. 13.
"There's hazardous signs for asbestos on buildings, and signs that say do not enter for health reasons," Retired Col. Mike White, an executive member of the committee, referring to the campus' outbuildings, told a group that included four legislators who represent Garland County. "There's 55-gallon drums filled with who knows what and they're rusting. There's PCB contamination. There's two large water tanks we're told are lead-lined.
"One of the most common problems in old hospitals for the military was that back in the day when they had expired drugs or waste, they just dug a hole out in the ground and threw it out there. We have no idea if that happened. There's a lot of environmental cleanup that has to happen up there. There are a lot of issues that are public health hazards."
Placing the property in the Environmental Protection Agency's Brownfields Program was deemed a priority at Monday's meeting. The placement would qualify it for federal funds to address environmental liabilities that could hamper the site's redevelopment.
An environmental assessment is needed to enroll the property in the program, officials said, noting that securing funding for the assessment before the property reverts to the federal government is critical. The Department of Defense deeded the property to the state in 1960 on condition it be used as a job training facility for the disabled or for other public health and educational purposes.
Since then, Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, a division of the state Department of Career Education, has operated its vocational rehabilitation residential program at the 105 Reserve St. campus overlooking downtown Hot Springs.
"If the Army gets that facility without a phase one (assessment) already in place, it could take years for them to fund one," White said. "And in those years that place is going to be sitting up there, padlocked, and who knows what will happen. I don't know if we're going to have enough security to keep people out.
"All (DOD) is going to do is build a big fence around it and padlock it. And then they'll start their process, which can take years."
ARS has said ending the residential program and downsizing more than 100 employees will reduce ACTI's budget from $11 million to around $3 million, prompting several attendees of Monday's meeting to suggest the agency could reprogram some of that savings toward keeping the building's critical systems in operation beyond the end of the year.
But agency officials told the group Monday that its state and federal funding is restricted to serving the disabled.
"This was a very difficult decision for us," Charisse Childers, director of the state's Division of Workforce Services, said. "We did not want this situation, but we had to make this decision to be able to provide the services for the individuals we're charged with serving.
"When we were upside down on that equation, spending more money on buildings and maintenance and repair, we weren't able to provide those services. As far as any savings are concerned, there's very limited money that can be spent on continuing the operation of the building."
Keeping the building heated is critical to its fire suppression system, Hot Springs Fire Chief Ed Davis told the group, warning that pipes in the sprinkler system could burst in cold weather. Electricity also needs to be maintained for the pumping system that pressurizes the sprinkler and hydrant systems, he said.
ACTI said its security staff will be dismissed when the residential program ends Sept. 30, but that a private security company has been contracted to conduct patrols and guard the campus gate through the end of the year. ARS said it's working to arrange security for the campus after it reverts to the federal government.
The committee said a fire starting on campus and racing up Hot Springs Mountain will be more likely without a security presence to dissuade trespassers.
"The immediate concern was with our high homeless and vagrant population that there would be an infill into those buildings," Dr. Jack Porter, an executive member of the committee who facilitated Monday's meeting, said. "Fresh in our minds was the Majestic fire. Our concern was that in January somebody is going to want to light a fire on the back of that property back there and we have Majestic south, so to speak. Just visualizing a fire going up the side of that mountain was a grave concern to us."
Officials at Monday's meeting said an environmental assessment could cost as much as $300,000. Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough said funding needs to be in place before the property transfers to the federal government.
"Our country is peppered with buildings just like this throughout the United States," he said. "Communities have spent tens of millions of dollars and still don't have the facilities open. I'm really concerned once it gets to the (General Services Administration) or DOD, efforts are going to be fraught."
Local on 08/13/2019
Print Headline: Liabilities complicate ACTI building's future