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Redfield aldermen reject offer of former lab facility


REDFIELD — Redfield aldermen balked twice Monday evening when asked if they would consider accepting a mothballed 87,600-square-foot research laboratory and more than 40 acres for the municipality.

The four members of the Redfield City Council who voted against acceptance cited high maintenance costs and “too many unknowns” as the reasons they turned down the property.

Mayor Tony Lawhon said Charles River Laboratories, a Massachusetts research firm, has indicated it was interested in donating the lab, shuttered in 2009, and land to the city, but asked for a commitment from Redfield by 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Lawhon called a special council meeting Monday to discuss the issue, noting that four of the six aldermen were not on the legislative body before Jan. 1 and may not have been familiar with the prior discussions about Charles River’s potential gift to Redfield.

The property includes 87,000 square feet under roof: A three-story main building with 56,000 square feet; two one-story research buildings including 28,000 square feet; and a 3,600-square-foot equipment storage building on six acres with a security fence. Charles River holds title to 43.64 acres.

The mayor, with the endorsement of the council serving at the time, submitted a letter of intent Dec. 20 indicating a desire to accept the property. However, the letter came “with a request the city be allowed a period of time to assess the financial obligations” it would assume by accepting the buildings and land.

The municipality’s $650,000 annual budget has been stretched with lower-than-anticipated revenues for the first quarter of the year, Lawhon noted Monday, requiring city officials to use reserves to meet the city payroll.

“I admit I would rather have the 120 jobs lost when the lab closed, but the property has a number of potential uses,” Lawhon told aldermen last year. “We are doing it one step at a time to do it right.”

Lawhon acknowledged Monday that “a lot of unknowns” exist and emphasized he wanted the aldermen to make the decision.

“Council, this is in your lap,” he added.

Council members raised questions about potential liabilities with the property, including environmental issues and the cost of maintaining and repairing the complex.

Aldermen were told it costs an estimated $100,000 annually to keep the utilities on at minimum levels in the buildings and a number of mechanical and roof problems were listed by Charles River.

Several companies expressed an interest in acquiring the lab for research projects with the National Center for Toxicological Research and the Pine Bluff Arsenal, but no agreement was signed, a representative of a real estate firm acknowledged last year after a tour of the facility by Redfield officials.

It was put up for auction in September 2010, but Charles River rejected a bid for the property from a competitor, the real estate representative stated. At one point Charles River even discussed demolishing the structure, constructed in 1982, because of potential liability issues, Lawhon said, but agreed to put off any demolition plans for a year.

Lou Ann Nisbett, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, talked with the council Monday and stated that should Charles River donate the property to Redfield, a potential buyer could be eligible for incentives from the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County. Revenue from a three-eighths cent sales tax approved by county voters in 2011 was earmarked for job creation.

If the city obtained the property, it could lease it for free to a prospective employer in exchange for improvements and renovation of the buildings, she said.

The Alliance would help market the property for the city, she added.

Alderman Larry O’Briant raised the issue of potential costs to the city over a 12-month period, adding that he believes a return should be expected on any investment.

The first vote on accepting the property failed, with Aldermen Carol Eagle and Glen Flemmons casting the only “yes” votes. Sandra G. Garrett, Diann Smith, O’Briant and Darrell Hedden voted “no.”

A motion by Hedden to reconsider the proposal failed by an identical 4-2 vote. He noted earlier the city has multiple needs, including replacing its police station.

The alternative, a representative of the Little Rock commercial real estate firm Flake and Kelly said earlier, would involve Charles River selling the former animal research lab at auction. Lawhon called Dave Carter of the firm after the two votes and simply said “we pass.”