State plans to resume security at abandoned campus

A vehicle, signs and a barricade block the front entrance to the Army and Navy General Hospital on Reserve Street on Thursday. - Photo by Donald Cross of The Sentinel-Record

The state confirmed Thursday that security will be returning to the Army and Navy General Hospital campus, pending legislative approval.

Arkansas Rehabilitation Services said it has concluded bidding for 24-hour, seven-day-a-week armed security for the 270,000-square-foot building, 20-acre campus and its more than two dozen outbuildings, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

ARS said pending legislative approval, a contract for security services would take effect next month or in June, almost two years after the state shuttered the Mission/Spanish style building that's overlooked downtown since 1933. The state hasn't provided security for the campus since its July 1, 2020 departure.

The campus has been in limbo ever since, with the state still owning it despite no longer providing the service that gave it title to the property in 1960. Per the 1959 statute that transferred ownership from the Army to the state, title immediately reverts to the federal government if the property is no longer being used for health or education.

It hasn't been used for either since fall 2019, but the property still remains with the state. ARS said it's not been able to use its federal funding to contract a security provider since it left the campus almost two years ago.

"The federal funding that supported the Arkansas Career Training Institute must be dedicated to vocational rehabilitation for individuals with disabilities," Chip McAfee, ARS communications director, said. "The federal funding cannot be used to secure a property where vocational rehabilitation no longer takes place."

McAfee said state rainy day funds would be used to resume security services. Their disbursement requires legislative approval.

The National Park Service said it has monitored the property during the state's absence but doesn't have the manpower for regular patrols. Vandals and squatters have exploited the breach, setting up what The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce Future of the Army and Navy Hospital Executive Committee has called a "lawless camp."

The committee, formed in 2019 to look for a new tenant or purpose for the orphaned campus, said the federal government won't accept the property until all of its environmental liabilities are revealed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a phase two environmental assessment, the completion of which is expected to expedite the property's return to the federal government.

Findings from the initial study completed in 2019 included possible contamination of soil from storage drums and underground fuel bunkers, contaminants the local committee said could leach into the 90-acre area where groundwater mixes with thermal water that rises from Hot Springs National Park's namesake springs.

The state cited maintenance costs and student outcomes for its decision to leave the property, according to emails it provided in response to a 2019 records request. Converting ACTI's vocational training and job placement program for young adults with disabilities from a residential to community-based model would be a more effective use of taxpayer money, the state said.

Based on employment outcomes and ACTI's $11.6 million budget, the state was paying as much as $176,736 per job placement from 2015 to 2018, according to an internal ARS email from April 2019. Utilities ran as high as $60,000 a month, according to copies the state provided of 2017 and 2018 gas, electric and water bills.