Tahlequah Daily Press

April 15, 2013

Downtown renovation prompting questions

By JOSH NEWTON
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — The development of a former bar into apartments and commercial sites in downtown Tahlequah is prompting local residents to accuse city officials of “secretly” trying to sweep code compliance issues under the rug.

One local resident indicated Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols asked unidentified “authorities” to waive water sprinkler and fire suppression requirements for the property investors.

Nichols denies the accusation, and said he’s surprised the “rumors have gotten to this point.” He said he was only involved in early conversations about the property, and left decisions up to city and state officials.

Dr. Steve and Angela Jones, co-investors of the property formerly known as the Crow Bar, approached city officials before they purchased the building and asked what they would need to do to get the structure in compliance with city code, according to Nichols.

Dr. Jones confirmed that on Friday.

“Before we purchased the building, we had a meeting with city officials, like the [Tahlequah Public Works Authority], city staff, and others,” said Jones. “The question was whether there was a big enough existing line to run a sprinkler system, because it was only a 3/4-inch line. We started asking what the process was to get the additional line. The mayor told us, ‘If there’s anything we can do to help... ,’ but also said it would depend on what was going to be needed.”

When city officials first talked with the Joneses, Nichols said he was told by city staff there was some “wiggle room” in the building codes. If the entire facility had to be equipped with a sprinkler system, a new 6-inch water line might be needed.

Nichols was told installation of a 6-inch water line could require digging up a nearby street. While Nichols hoped the city could avoid tearing up a road, he also expected the city to follow the proper codes, and said there was never any back-room deal to avoid doing so.

“The only thing I can think of where anything was said – at one point I said something like, ‘Gosh, I hope whatever it is, there’s enough wiggle room we don’t have to dig up the street,’” said Nichols.

That statement, he said, wasn’t a directive, and beyond the early discussion, he left the process up to the investors and city staff.

Jones said the investors ultimately contacted the state fire marshal’s office, which initially made recommendations that the building’s residential areas be equipped with a sprinkler system.

“So we followed his recommendations,” said Jones.

“Since then, the building has been inspected, and they also made additional recommendations for sprinkling in the building, and we made those changes. The fire department then requested they have access to an outlet on the outside of the building, so we also made those accommodations. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done according to what we were asked to do.”

Those recommendations eventually ended up requiring installation of a new water line, Jones said, because the existing line wasn’t sufficient. He said investors recently had the new water line put in at no cost to the city.

According to Jones, the remodel is set to result in four efficiency-style apartments on the second floor of the structure, along with a sports bar-grill with a balcony.

He said a structural engineer was brought in for the planning stages, and investors have followed the recommendations he made.

The first floor will be three commercial spaces, and Jones said there are a couple of potential tenants for those spaces.

“We’ve also purchased the house and some of the land behind the building,” said Jones. “We’re trying to make Tahlequah a better place. In essence, this will result in four businesses that will be paying taxes, which will benefit the city.”