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PB building's future shaky after collapse

By John Worthen

This article was published August 1, 2014 at 2:33 a.m.

PINE BLUFF -- A week after a historic three-story building partially collapsed in downtown Pine Bluff, a block of Main Street between Sixth and Eighth avenues remains closed, and city leaders have been at odds with the property owner about what to do next.

No debris from the more-than-100-year-old structure has fallen near Main Street because the collapse occurred at the back of the building. But the street remains closed until a structural engineer can either ensure that the rest of the building is sound or make a call for it to be torn down.

Garland Trice of Pine Bluff owns the building at 620 Main St. and said Thursday that he had no comment about the matter.

If the building needs to be demolished, it will be Trice's financial responsibility, city officials have said.

Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said she met with Trice on Wednesday, requesting that he expedite the hiring of an engineer to file a report on the building by the end of this week. Late Thursday afternoon, the mayor said Trice told her the report was on its way.

"We held his feet to the fire, and now we have a report that will be fully reviewed before we decide what to do next," Hollingsworth said, noting that Trice had initially told her it would take him up to 10 days before he could hire an engineer.

When the rear roof of the building that formerly housed the Sahara Temple and Shriner headquarters gave way last Friday, bricks and other debris toppled into an alley below and prompted emergency officials to immediately close off Main Street out of concern that the entire building could fall.

No injuries were reported, and there was no damage to neighboring structures.

Heavy rain a few weeks ago likely contributed to the collapse, which pancaked the roof onto the building's third floor, Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Chief Shauwn Howell said. More than a third of the building's roof gave way, collapsing the top floor's south wall and most of the upper back wall.

Little had changed with the situation Thursday, as city officials waited for Trice to produce the engineer's report. On Thursday morning, the Pine Bluff City Council's Public Health and Welfare Committee met to discuss the building and ways the city could be more proactive when dealing with aging structures and their owners.

Jamin Ross, technical inspector for the Pine Bluff Inspection and Zoning Department, said his department is helping council members create a plan that will eventually be turned into an ordinance and voted on by the City Council.

Ross said this is something his department was working on even before the building's partial collapse, "but now we have more of a sense of urgency."

The former Shriner building is the second structure to collapse in downtown Pine Bluff this year. In February, the rear section of an old two-story building at 401 S. Main St. fell in the early morning hours. The rest of the building was taken down by construction crews a short time later, though rubble is still piled at the site.

City officials said the building's owner had to raise money before paying for debris removal, which is why the site wasn't cleaned up immediately.

In the ordinance talks Thursday, the City Council's Public Health and Welfare Committee -- made up of Aldermen Glen Brown, Lloyd Holcomb Jr. and Thelma Walker -- agreed that the planning and zoning suggestions were a good place to start when dealing with owners of older buildings.

The suggestions, in part, include identifying the current condition of all commercial buildings in the city; contacting the owners of properties and asking what their plans are for their structures; securing all open or accessible buildings; coordinating with Fire and Emergency Services to identify major violations; sending out legal notices of repairs that need to be made; and, as a last resort, having the city's code enforcement officers and attorneys become involved to ensure that unsafe structures are either repaired or torn down.

"This is just preliminary at this point, and we are a ways off yet on drafting this as an ordinance," Ross said. "We know something more has to be done to deal with these types of issues, and we are trying to be on top of it."

State Desk on 08/01/2014

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