SHERWOOD, Ark. — In a quiet intersection of what used to be a bustling highway, a walk around the Roundtop Filling Station serves as a portal through time for Darrell Brown.
“There’s so much history here. Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash visited here,” he said. “It’s one-of-a-kind in Arkansas.”
For the past three years, Brown has rallied to bring the building back to its former glory after years of dilapidation and vandalism.
The station, with its tent-shaped roof, was built in 1936 and was in operation as a gas station until 1981. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, and in 2013 an effort to secure funding to renovate and restore the building was fulfilled.
The Arkansas Preservation Program issued the City of Sherwood a $50,000 grant to complete Phase I of the preservation. Another grant for $78,000 would be issued a year later. The renovation was completed in late 2014, and the building has sat empty ever since.
“A lot of work had to be done to save this building. It would be a shame for all of that to go to waste. It does need to be used,” Brown said.
Security cameras and an alarm system stand guard over the property now, after an arson attempt left the exterior charred and the stucco soot-stained in November 2014.
“It needs to be occupied or the place is going to fall apart,” Brown said. “The city owes it to these people to give them answers as to when this project will be finished and when this building will be occupied.”
Working 4 You reached out to mayor Virginia Hillman Young for an interview, but she declined, saying the city attorney advised her not to agree to an interview about the timeline of the building. She did say the city had requested approval for a holding tank from the Arkansas Department of Health.
Mayor Young said the sewage tank project would cost $3,000, a fraction of the $30,000 Young said it would cost to connect the building to city sewer lines. According to Young, the city has received verbal approval on the tank, but is waiting on written approval. When asked about a timeline, Young said they were waiting on the Health Department to issue the written approval to move forward, so there’s no hard timeline for completion, though she noted the item had been added to the 2016 budget.
But according to the health department, it has no records of the city submitting a request for the site. When we asked about the discrepancy, we didn’t get a response.
Young told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette the city is actually seeking approval from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. We followed up with that agency. AHTD said it also had no record of any request, nor could it be the agency to grant one, as that portion of highway was removed from its control in 1960.
On April 8, a day after our story aired, Young provided additional answers to our questions. According to Young, she told both KARK and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the agency involved was the health department.
Young had the city engineer follow up with us later that same afternoon regarding details of the progress of the project. We had requested this information earlier in the week. According to the city engineer, a health department representative instructed the city to have a designated representative (DR) to design a holding tank to be installed.
“The DR will design the holding tank and alarm system and submit the paperwork to ADH. Once a permit is issued by ADH we can construct and operate,” said city engineer Ellen Norvell via email on April 8. “The DR we are using is Arkansas Land and Water Development, Inc. We will be required to have a certified person periodically check the holding tank system. Initially, we will use Alan McIntire, but long term the City will have an employee trained to perform the checks. The Wastewater Utility will use its vacuum truck to maintain the holding tank and will dispose of the waste at one of our treatment facilities.”
We are currently following up with the health department to confirm that information.
“To have a perfectly preserved building sitting empty and not being used will look good but it’s not real practical,” said Mark Christ, spokesperson for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. “We want these buildings to have a continued use in the community.”
To receive the $138,000 in grants from the state’s preservation program, Sherwood had to lay out a long term use for the building. According to its applications and contracts with AHPP it committed to operating the site as a police substation. Young, saying the building wouldn’t be utilized 24/7.
“The grants are closed out, and we’re trusting them that they will get the substation in there,” Christ said. “The city had an anticipated timeline for move-in. If it hasn’t met that timeline, that’s a question for the city.”
Despite Roundtop sitting vacant for more than a year, Christ said the city had met its obligations under the grant of preserving the structure. According to Christ, there aren’t hard and fast rules on timelines for completion, and clawbacks weren’t an option.
“As far as penalties, there’s no real penalty for timelines,” Chist said. “Every project and building is different on the time it takes. Sometimes it takes six months. Sometimes it’s six years. It depends on the community and it depends on the building.”
According to Christ, grassroots efforts are largely the driving force behind completion of historic preservation projects, and it is not uncommon for those who have been active on the grassroots level to find themselves at odds with city leaders due to personal ties to the building, donors and the community.
That is what appears to have happened in Sherwood. Brown has severed ties with the city and its History and Heritage Commission, which he has chaired since 2013 after asking Mayor Young if such a preservation group could be created. According to Brown, personality conflicts largely played a part, along with his insistence that city leaders commit to a timeline for completion.
Young wouldn’t comment on Brown’s break with the city, only saying the city intended to complete the project as planned and Brown no longer spoke on the city’s behalf.
The city also gathered donations from members of the public through its “buy a brick” program for memorial bricks that would go to create a brick memorial garden at the back of the property. Working 4 You received several inquiries regarding the bricks and funding. The city provided a list of individuals who were recorded as giving to the program. You can view that list here.
Young said the memorial garden was still in the plans, but could not provide a timeline for when it would be completed. She advised anyone in Sherwood with concerns to contact her office directly.
“I no longer have access to the building,” Brown said. “I don’t know the last time someone was in here. I don’t have answers for anyone, because I could never get answers from the city.”
Brown said he may have left his keys to the Roundtop with the city, but he hopes someday soon the door will be open, not only for the police but the public.
“It’s just sitting here. It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking,” he said.
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