ES council, commissions experience changes in 2019

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

By Samantha Jones

Whether you’re attending a Eureka Springs City Council meeting or a hospital commission workshop, one thing is always true. The times are changing and city representatives have a lot to say about it. Here’s a rundown of a few big developments in 2019.

City council

After seeing the addition of new members in 2018, the city council’s makeup stayed the same in 2019 with Susan Harman, Terry McClung, Harry Meyer, Melissa Greene, Mickey Schneider and Bob Thomas representing their respective wards.

The council kicked off the year discussing the renovation of The Auditorium, agreeing to put in an elevator and remodel the bottom floor to serve as an ADA-compliant city and community meeting space. The council voted on Feb. 25 to apply for a grant through the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program to remodel the area but did not receive the grant.

By December, Mayor Butch Berry said the project was nearing construction so long as there’s money to take care of it. Berry asked the city advertising and promotion commission to allocate $50,000 to the project, which would total $145,000. The commissioners agreed to consider it at their first workshop in 2020.

The renovation is a big deal, but it certainly wasn’t the biggest topic of debate in 2019. That honor goes to entertainment districts, both temporary and permanent. The council formed a committee including council members, downtown merchants and other city representatives to investigate what it would take to establish districts where public drinking would be allowed. Thomas served on the committee and supported its efforts, while other council members could not get behind the idea.

After the council agreed to allow a temporary entertainment district for Bikes, Blues and BBQ in September, Schneider and Meyer expressed vehement disapproval of a permanent district. Temporary districts are considered on a case-by-case basis, but the council would need to approve an ordinance to establish a permanent entertainment district.

Schneider said it would become a “very dangerous situation” if the council approved such an ordinance, and Meyer conducted a survey of local merchants and citizens near the end of the year asking if they’d support it. According to his survey, Meyer said, 50 percent of the people polled want a permanent entertainment district and 60 percent believe a permanent district is not necessary to compete with other to tourist markets. Some merchants are wary of people bringing drinks into their stores, Meyer said.

The council approved an ordinance establishing the standards for an entertainment district on Sept. 9. On Nov. 25, the council asked city attorney Tim Weaver to write an ordinance establishing a permanent entertainment district with a sunset clause of June 30, 2020. The council deferred that proposed ordinance on Dec. 9, agreeing to wait until a second town hall meeting where citizens can express how they feel about the issue. That town hall meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 6, at The Auditorium.

Hospital commission

In 2019, the hospital commission experienced perhaps the biggest year of change since 2007, when Allegiance Health Management took over Eureka Springs Hospital. It started at the very beginning of the year, when the commission allocated $50,000 to keep the emergency room staffed after hearing that Allegiance wasn’t paying doctors and nurses on time.

Allegiance was also behind on rent, paying $75,000 to catch up by the end of January. In February, hospital CEO Vicki Andert announced her resignation. The commission kept pushing for improvements, hiring two qualified locals to inspect the hospital in March. Chairman John House said the inspections showed Allegiance has fallen behind on maintenance. Allegiance continued to fall behind, with the commission again allocating $50,000 to pay hospital employees in April.

On July 15, the commission agreed to send Allegiance a letter asking the company to take care of much-needed maintenance and repairs at the hospital. If Allegiance didn’t fix the problems in 30 days, House said, the commission could consider terminating the lease with 180 days of written notice.

By August, House said the commission had “zero reply” from Allegiance. House said Allegiance had until Aug. 21 to respond. No response would mean the commission could begin the process of terminating the lease agreement with Allegiance. Allegiance CEO Rock Bordelon did not return a call for comment but Allegiance placed an ad in the Aug. 22 edition of the Citizen saying the hospital has been surveyed “dozens of times” over the past 12 years by both federal and state surveyors and has passed all those inspections. Also in the ad, Allegiance asked “why would we want to continue operating in a community that obviously doesn’t want us there for whatever reasons.”

House reported in September that the commission was in limbo with Allegiance after receiving a response on Aug. 21 saying the repairs aren’t their responsibility. The commission sent another letter saying the company violated the terms of the lease and must respond by Oct. 18. When Allegiance did not respond, the commission agreed to take the case to court. At a special called meeting Nov. 9, the commission voted to hire Alliance Management Group to make the transition easier.

Alliance representatives Ryan Capshew and Darrell Parke had good news at the commission’s Dec. 16 meeting. Parke said Allegiance would be out of Eureka Springs by Feb. 1, and Capshew said Alliance is working on a recovery action plan in the meantime. Parke said he’s expecting the hospital to grow in 2020.

“We’re looking to heal wounds in the community and we’re looking to grow services,” Parke said. “We’re looking to correct issues that have been poorly handled.”

City advertising and promotion commission

The city advertising and promotion commission began the year with director Mike Maloney announcing his retirement. Maloney said on Jan. 23 that he had a good run in Eureka Springs. Maloney stayed on until April, when finance director Rick Bright took over as interim director. Also during the first quarter of the year, events coordinator Andy Green ended his contract on Feb. 15. Local resident Tracy Johnson was soon named the new events coordinator.

The commission held a workshop on March 6 to hear from local stakeholders about the kind of person they’d like to replace Maloney and began interviewing applicants in May. The commission narrowed the pool down to three by June and announced on July 10 that Florida-based marketing director Lacey Ekberg would be offered the job.

Ekberg accepted the position and began working on Aug. 15. Ekberg was named an authorized check signer on Aug. 14, in addition to commissioners Harman and McClung. On Sept. 11, Ekberg said she had already started working with Bright on the 2020 budget. Also in September, Bright said the commission needs to purchase a new sound system for The Auditorium and adjust the salaries and wages at The Aud to reflect the revenue brought in by new shows.

The commission voted Oct. 9 to spend $685,364 on Ekberg’s media plan, which includes hiring Florida-based advertising company Paradise to handle digital marketing and rebrand the city. The commission approved the full budget on Nov. 13 and voted on Dec. 11 to allocate $25,000 for Paradise to do market brand research.

Ekberg said Paradise will take over in February. That’s when the new brand and ad campaigns will be unveiled, Ekberg said.

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