Workers started removing mortar from the bricks of a Franklin building more than two months ago but haven’t been back to work since.
The winter wind blows straight through the Huddleston and Huddleston law office building at 98 W. Jefferson St. On Monday, Steve Huddleston’s office was a chilly 56 degrees when he arrived for work. The thermostat is set at 74 degrees, but the furnace can’t keep up because the spaces between the bricks are exposed.
That brick work was supposed to be done by the end of the year but wasn’t. So on Monday, workers put up some plastic around Huddleston’s building to shield it from the cold after Mayor Joe McGuinness gave the construction company an ultimatum — get some work done or the city will cancel the contract.
It was the first time the city has threatened to fire the company, but not the first time the mayor has called to ask it to resume working.
Since fall, workers have put in 160 hours total on the downtown facade project, which includes restoring historic facades on seven downtown businesses and the marquee at the Artcraft Theatre. The work has not been completed at any of those buildings; and at some, construction hasn’t started.
The more than $650,000 project is being funded with a state grant and local tax dollars and was supposed to be mostly finished by the end of last year. All work is supposed to be complete by March 31. City officials don’t expect it to be done.
“I’m doubtful,” Franklin community development director Krista Linke said. “Nobody is ever working.”
Now, the city has a choice. Either fire the contractor, be left with partially done buildings and search for a new contractor; or keep waiting for work to get done with no solid timeline. Even if the city wanted to end the contract, local officials will have to prove why to a state office overseeing the work and get its approval before firing the contractor, Linke said. Neither option is desirable at this point, she said.
If the work isn’t completed by March 31, the state could take back the remaining grant funds it promised for the project, Linke said. The city can ask for more time, but she’s not sure the state will grant it based on what’s happened so far, she said.
“We’re going to have to request an extension. I can’t say we’re going to get it,” Linke said.
The facade project is partially funded by a $250,000 grant from the state Office of Community and Rural Affairs, which requires the city to meet design and reporting requirements because state funds are involved. The city hired the contractor — one of only two firms that bid on the project — in July, but it’s been a struggle since. The city now is working with a fourth different contact person from the company, and workers aren’t showing up to repair bricks or rebuild facades, Linke said.
Multiple attempts to reach Advanced Restoration Contractors, based in Indianapolis, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for this story were not successful.
Meanwhile, Huddleston is sitting in his cold office because workers started a job more than 60 days ago that they’ve never come back to.
“The goal was to come in and start taking out the mortar and replace it before winter hit so that I wouldn’t be sitting here with a building with the mortar gone and wind blowing through the building. They took the mortar out, and we’ve been freezing in here. They hit it hard one or two days, and then they’re gone,” Huddleston said.
That’s just the latest problem he has had with the work, Huddleston said. The contractors put up scaffolding to get started but then took it down the same day because they found out they’d have to move a power line running along the street. Three or four weeks later the line was moved. Workers broke decorative lights while taking them down from outside the building. They took down bronze plaques with the building’s address and lost them, and during that time the office couldn’t get deliveries because there was no address on the building, Huddleston said.
Workers chipped out some of the old mortar to get ready to replace it but then never came back. The building has been in that shape ever since, he said.
“It would have been better for me if they hadn’t touched the mortar and waited until spring,” Huddleston said.
Other business owners are waiting for workers to start on their buildings.
At Don & Dona’s Restaurant, owner Mary Barnaby has been waiting for work to start, and the restaurant had closed in anticipation of the project. Workers are supposed to remove the entire storefront and restore the original columns and bricks below, but aside from removing the awning on the business, nothing else has been done, she said. She hasn’t gotten a timeline on when the project will be completed and only recently received a final architectural drawing for the renovation, she said.
“It isn’t professionally done. I hope somebody can get a handle on it,” she said.
At Sharp Graphics on Monroe Street, workers removed the awning about three months ago, and a worker stopped in to inspect the area around the front door on Monday, owner Charles Hessman said. Other than that, nothing has happened. Workers were supposed to show up once the sun came out on Tuesday to start working but never did, he said.
“They don’t give us much of a warning on that. We need a little bit more heads up so we can move things around in the front of the store. They were supposed to be here today, but they didn’t show up,” he said.
Hessman teaches construction at Franklin Community High School and is familiar with how projects are bid and how companies may bounce from site to site if they have multiple projects. He said he thinks the contractor has too many projects going on at once, and the work in Franklin has been stalled because of it.
The city’s contract allows Franklin to fire the company with seven days’ notice, and McGuinness used that threat for the first time this week to try to force the company to send some workers to Franklin. Workers aren’t showing up, and deadline after deadline has flown by, he said.
“They told us they can do a tuck point on a building in three to five days. Well, good. Let’s go,” McGuinness said.
The city didn’t have a wide selection of companies that wanted to do the work when the project was bid in the summer. Advanced Restoration Contractors had the lowest price, and the city checked the company’s qualifications and references and didn’t find any reason not to hire the company, Linke said.
The city is not directly overseeing the work because the architect and contractor are working directly with the business owners. While the city is responsible for overseeing the construction contract, Franklin has to have any changes approved by the state because of the grant, Linke said.
Franklin doesn’t want to fire the company because then it will have to try to keep the state funding while trying to find a new company to do the work, she said. Not only would that process take more time, but it could also end up costing the city more if the new company can’t get the work done for the same price proposed by the original contractor, she said.
What’s been done
Here’s a list of the eight buildings included in the $650,000 downtown facade project and what’s been accomplished since fall:
Artcraft Theatre marquee restoration
57 N. Main St.
Work has not started.
Huddleston and Huddleston law office
98 W. Jefferson Street
Mortar removed from bricks. About two-thirds has been replaced on the side, nothing on Jefferson Street side. Workers put up plastic to protect building from cold and weather.
Cherry Leaf Business Center
62 W. Jefferson St.
Removed awning, some painting on upper floor.
49 W. Monroe St.
Removed awning. Work has begun on interior second floor to raise ceilings for original window opening to be restored.
Eggers Woods law office
58 W. Jefferson Street
Some brick repair and painting. Existing facade has been removed.
Michael Lock Shelter Insurance
50 W. Jefferson St.
Upper floor painting
Don and Dona’s Restaurant
18-20 E. Jefferson St.
Removed awning. Majority of upper floor painting complete, but not finished.
Jennifer Jones Auger, attorney at law
26 E. Jefferson St.
Painted some trim on the building.
Source: Area businesses and Franklin community development director Krista Linke