Reported By: Jordan Vandenberge
Officials from an Evansville-based developer allege the Mayor's Office is playing political hardball and punishing them for not giving the Administration a piece of downtown property for the potential IU Medical School project.
City officials on Thursday ordered the Kunkel Group to make a long list of repairs to the historic McCurdy building as well as the former Whirlpool building, now called Park 41. Both of the properties were cited for a series of code violations including being called a fire hazard.
However, Ben Kunkel of the Kunkel group says this order came three weeks after the Mayor's office sent a representative into their office in hopes of acquiring a piece of property for the IU Medical School site.
The Kunkel group declined and three weeks later, according to Kunkel, the city cited the developer for those violations.
In a statement to Eyewitness News, Ben Kunkel said, in part, "The City simply didn't like our answer on giving our property to them, so they are being heavy handed and a political bully. We don't expect it to end now and expect more pressure from other city departments, and maybe after speaking up it gets worse, but that is a risk we are willing to take. I hate having our reputation drug through the mud so even though I hate pushing back in the media, I feel we have no choice but to defend ourselves."
We reached out to the Mayor's office for comment. In a statement, Steve Schaefer, the Mayor's Chief of Staff, dismissed Kunkel's claims.
"Mayor Winnecke wanted Mr. Kunkel to succeed in [McCurdy] project, but constant delays and excuses have caused the City to take formal action via the administrative process to ensure a construction timeline and progress," Schaefer said. "The allegation that the fines and "call to action" via the administrative hearing are somehow connected to the medical school expansion are completely untrue and another unfortunate excuse to defer attention from the violations at Park 41 and the McCurdy.
"Mr. Kunkel does have numerous properties in the downtown area, however, none of his property is located in the administration's preferred downtown site for the medical school project," Schaefer added.
It's one of Evansville's most historic and iconic buildings but Evansville city officials have deemed it a public nuisance. After plans for the building stalled time and time again, the City of Evansville has taken action against the owners of the McCurdy Building.
At a hearing Thursday afternoon, the court affirmed the City's order to have The Kunkel Group, the developer, complete a long list of repairs in order to get the McCurdy Building up to code. The historic landmark, which was built during World War I, has continued to fall into disrepair. The awnings are torn, some windows are shattered and plywood covers some of the doors but not all of them. City officials say one set of doors isn't completely secure which allows easy access to vagrants.
The roofing has also deteriorated to the point where some of it will blow away if there is a strong wind. Officials say, on one occasion, some of the roofing hit the nearby Old National Bank Building during a storm.
After his office received several complaints, Ben Miller from the City-County Building Commission says it was time to take action.
"The building is a public nuisance and is not currently safe to occupy," Miller said. "The city stepped up and did an enforcement action against the developer to request that they give us a written plan on how they are going to correct the violations."
"It's an order of the city under the Building Commission and the Unsafe Building Code to require them to repair the building."
A court officer affirmed the City's request.
The Kunkel Group has plans to turn the historic landmark into apartments. The renovations would bring it up to code and bring it back to life. In Indiana, commercial building projects such as the McCurdy are required to have plans approved by the State Fire Marshall. The McCurdy project went through the Indiana Homeland Security plan review process in 2008 and was approved for construction, Miller says. For a release to be valid, construction must start within a year. Because of several setbacks, extensions and reinstatements were granted to the first developer of the project.
In 2012, the McCurdy project was purchased by the Kunkel Group, according to Miller. Kunkel petitioned the Fire Prevention and Building Safety Commission for a reinstatement of the former developer's construction design plan. The state then granted the re-instatement but on the condition that construction would within 9 months. That deadline expired back in October.
The City-County Building Commission cannot issue a building permit for the project without all the necessary approvals from the state, according to Miller.
Ben Kunkel of The Kunkel Group says they're still trying to secure the financing for the project.
"We're real close," Kunkel said. "We expect that in January or so, we'll start demolition and we would likely take care of all of these issues at that time."
The Kunkel Group does not face any civil penalties right now but the city does have the right to issue fines in the future if necessary. There will be another hearing later this month.
Thursday brought double-trouble for the Kunkel Group as another one of its buildings was deemed a fire hazard.
After being ordered to bring the McCurdy Building up to code, the Evansville-based developer was ordered to bring the former Whirlpool Plant, now called Park 41, up to code as well.
A fire inspector says there are problems with sprinklers, emergency lights and fire exits. Kunkel says some of the repairs have been made and they will continue to work on getting the other issues fixed.