The historic former Morrilton post office is being renovated to become home to the Conway County Office of Emergency Management and the 911 communications center.
It’s been a long time coming.
“All this was set in motion some 10 or 12 years ago,” said Johnathan Trafford, director of OEM.
“We need the room, and basically, one of the biggest reasons we’re moving 911 to the basement is for security reasons,” Trafford said.
“Our dispatch center is going to be 100 percent safe and secure,” he said.
OEM has been in the Morrilton Fire Station on East Harding Street for about 15 years. The 911 center has been housed at the Morrilton Police Department since the center’s creation in the 1990s.
“If a big storm came through town, there’s a possibility we would be crippled,” Trafford said.
Steve Beavers, 911 administrator, agreed.
“We’ll be underground now, so we’ll be much more secure when a storm comes over,” he said.
The former Morrilton post office on Division Street was built in 1936, one of seven built in Arkansas at the time, according to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.
The federal building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 14, 1998.
The basement was used as a federal fallout shelter, Trafford said.
Beavers said the basement will give 911 employees more privacy than the Police Department space.
“The Police Department brings in inmates. There’s a lot of traffic in and out of the Police Department because of the nature of the police work,” he said.
Beavers said the move will likely occur the first week of October.
The former post office was renovated in the 1960s. At that time, tile was placed over the hardwood floors, and lighting and heating and air were modernized, according to the preservation website.
A new post office was built in the 1990s in Morrilton.
Conway County Judge Jimmy Hart said the county bought the historic building two years ago for $150,000 from the
Conway County Economic Development Corp., which originally had a long-term lease, then later bought the building.
The Economic Development Corp. and the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce planned to share the facility with OEM.
Instead, those groups bought a building on Main Street in downtown Morrilton, Hart said.
The former post office is about 7,000 square feet, Hart said, 3,500 square feet per level.
Hart said that in addition to it being part of history, one of the reasons he wanted the federal building was to have a standalone 911 center.
“A truly dedicated center — that’s what the [state] statute actually requires,” Hart said.
“We realize the importance of this. You can have all the police cars; you can have all the firetrucks. If you don’t have communications, you don’t have anything,” he said.
“If we wind up with a F4, F5 tornado, we may lose a communications tower, but where this particular facility is, that nerve center is still going to be there intact.”
Hart said the 911 center has not had an upgrade since it was created in the 1990s, and now it will.
Trafford said the present renovation has been paid for with grants.
“Grants have renovated this building. Without grants, this wouldn’t have been possible,” Trafford said.
“I think we spent right at $600,000 in grant money,” he said.
“That renovated the whole downstairs and basically got us into upstairs,” Trafford said.
Bids to renovate came in under the grant amount, he said.
The $75,000 in grant funds left over will be allocated toward the upstairs.
“We’re going to apply for some more grant money because that always helps,” he said.
Trafford said the initial grants were secured by former OEM/911 coordinator Misty Sutton.
When the upstairs is finished, Trafford said, OEM will move upstairs and leave the 911 center by itself in the basement.
It has been a slow process because of the historic nature of the building, he said.
“That’s been part of our Achilles heel on this project, making sure everything is done in accordance with historic preservation, making sure we stay in the strict guidelines,” Trafford said.
“The old post office boxes — all of that has to stay original.”
However, Trafford said, [the Arkansas Historic Preservation] has been “more than accommodating to us.”
“The post office is one of those buildings we wanted to preserve,” Morrilton Mayor Stewart Nelson said. “We just couldn’t figure out who the heck was going to live in it.”
Nelson said he disagrees with the money spent on the building, however.
“I have objected to it because I didn’t think we needed to do all the extra expenses, but this is the county judge, and we’re going to live with it,” Nelson said. “This has got big meeting rooms with TV sets. … It’s a pretty extensive command center [Hart has] built.”
Nelson said grants were obtained for the renovation, but not for operation.
Hart said he can’t understand why Nelson would object.
“I’m not denying it’s going to cost more — before, the one that stomached the bulk of the additional cost was the city,” he said.
He said the budget will be approximately $525,000 a year to have a separate 911 center.
The 911 center is run by an intergovernmental council of Conway County cities, which agreed on this plan, he said, when discussions started 12 years ago.
“We felt like we did the right thing — everybody agreed to this. We have on file an ordinance, an agreement from every city in Conway County, and the City Council approved the agreement.
“The thing that held us back was funding,” he said. “Now we’re in a better position than we were.”
Hart said a 911 tax is received from cellphones and telephone landlines.
“That gap, that cost, is going to be borne by the county and the municipalities that participate in that,” he said.
“We’re taking the burden off the city [of Morrilton]. It’s going to cost them a whole lot less,” Hart said. “They’re basically going to write a check for a change instead of providing in-kind [services].”
The city will pay $81,000 to the county for the 911 services, Nelson said.
When the 911 center moves out of the Morrilton Police Department, Nelson said, the city will hire one dispatcher, who will work only daytime hours.
Hart said it makes sense for OEM and the 911 center to be together because “they complement each other.”
“The biggest impetus with this whole thing was to focus on one thing and do it really well,” Hart said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.