Council eyes Underground Eureka as new attraction
By Becky Gillette
EUREKA SPRINGS -- Eureka Springs could have a major new economic stimulus in the future from a tourist attraction that lies hidden beneath the streets, sidewalks and buildings of downtown.
"It would be a huge boon to the tourism economy to open Underground Eureka for tours," Mayor Dani Joy said at the Nov. 5 City Council meeting.
"It could start another industry underground. The point of entry could perhaps be at the Auditorium and the exit point down at Main Stage," she said.
Joy said she had just found out about matching grant funds available for a feasibility study of safely opening Underground Eureka for tours and possible businesses located off the urban tunnels that are a legacy of Eureka from the late 1800s when people built on top of some original streets in order to solve drainage problems.
The council approved her suggestion to appropriate $12,000 of "turnback money" to pay the city's half of a project feasibility study. Joy said a representative from Sen. Blanche Lincoln's office will be visiting this week to look at the proposal.
According to the Web site www.undergroundeureka.com, "In the year 1890, two major streets in downtown Eureka Springs underwent considerable re-engineering. Main Street was the first official 'street' in town, built in a low level gulch, alongside a small spring-fed creek. It suffered from frequent runoff problems and quickly earned the nickname 'Mud' Street, hence the need for improvements. The second street in town requiring attention was Spring Street, as it was also becoming a main thoroughfare for carriage traffic. Today, it serves as the primary route for much of Eureka's Historic Loop.
"These significant road improvements raised the overall level of the two streets and required that a number of businesses along Spring Street and Main Street create new entrances on the second floor, thereby making basements out of the once street-level facades. The original store fronts were walled off and now lie hidden within a string of subterranean limestone tunnels. Over the years these dangerous and mysterious passageways have become known as 'Underground Eureka'."
Joy said other cities that have underground attractions have found they are a major boon to the economy. The study would look at the costs of the project, and resolve issues such as who owns Underground Eureka. While some alderpersons questioned if the underground was owned by the businesses above them, Joy said while businesses are required to maintain the sidewalks, the area underground the sidewalks is owned by the City of Eureka.
Council members approved the grant application, but said they would have liked more time to get public feedback and to study the proposal before proceeding. Alderpersons Kathy Harrison and Charlotte Buchannan abstained from voting. However, the city had to move quickly in order to meet a deadline of Nov. 30 for applying for the grant.
In other action, late in the nearly four-hour meeting after spending a considerable amount of time amending a proposed ordinance providing for condemnation and removal of houses, the mayor and City Attorney Tim Weaver expressed concerns about writing the ordinance late at night and making numerous changes with the intention of passing the ordinance on first reading. The council had decided to amend Ordinance No. 1022 (renamed Ordinance 2071) which had been dropped from the city code, because the city doesn't currently have an ordinance covering condemnation and removal of structures.
A motion by Alderman Eric Scheunemann passed to place a moratorium on demolition permits being issued until Ordinance 2071 is adopted by the city. The penalty for violation will be not being allowed to build on that property for three years. The council intends to finish amending the ordinance with the intention of passing first reading of the ordinance at the next council meeting.
The council also discussed the timing of two controversial referendums: Ordinance 2051 regarding taxis/limousines and Ordinance 2047 regarding demolition by neglect. The council had earlier planned on saving money by holding the referendums in May at the same time as a judge's election, but the city may not be allowed to piggyback on the judge's election. City Clerk Mary Jean Sell was delegated to determine if the city can hold the referendum at the same time as the judge's election.
The council voted to hold votes on the referendums as soon as possible if it isn't allowed to hold them in conjunction with the judge's election.
Early in the meeting Alderperson Rae Hahn questioned Police Chief Earl Hyatt about a newspaper report that quoted Hyatt as stating he did not have the authority to ticket or arrest Robert Wagner for operating a limousine service without a franchise from the city. Hahn said failure to take action against Wagner undermines the city's ability to regulate traffic and safety.
Hyatt said at this point in time, the limousines fall into a legal loophole because the city ordinance defines the current license for a taxi/limousine as seven or less passengers not operating on a fixed route and schedule.
"I'll enforce an ordinance on the books I can legally enforce," Hyatt said. "If our code doesn't preclude it, I can't stop it. Our code is insufficient. It needs to be corrected if we want to address vehicles with seven or more passengers."
City Attorney Weaver said the chief's interpretation is very just.
"I believe he is justified in not making an arrest," Weaver said. "A ticket is a form of an arrest."
Wagner does have a business license under categories of other businesses.
Hahn recommended that taxi/limousines in the city ordinance be defined as any vehicle used to carry passengers for hire but not operate on a fixed route. She said similar language is used by the City of Bentonville.
In action on the issue of removing appointive city officials, after lengthy discussion the city council approved first reading of the ordinance. The ordinance must pass two more readings and then, 30 days after publication of the ordinance notice, it would become law. The board discussed what appointive officials would be subject to the ordinance. Weaver said the statute would only apply to boards that do not already have established procedures for removal of officials established by state statute.
Alderman Patrick Brammer said the city didn't want to specifically target the planning commission, and was looking at all types of commissions. However, some commissions such as the hospital board and the park's commission have removal procedures proscribed by state statute that would hold precedence over a city code.
Currently, appointive officials can be removed by a vote of the city council and approval of the mayor. The proposed ordinance would allow the city council to remove appointive officials.
Good cause for removal in the ordinance is defined as: A: Conviction of a commissioner in a court of competent jurisdiction of an "A" class misdemeanor or any felony. B: Absence by the commissioner from more than 50 percent of the meetings of the commission for the past six months. C. Changing residence of a commissioner to a location outside of the corporate limits of the city of Eureka Springs. D. Willful neglect to follow adopted code, ordinance or guidelines, or for granting special privilege.
"Commissioners should be held accountable for their actions," Scheunemann said. "Those who don't follow the law should be removed. This will make commissioners accountable to the people."
Scheunemann said the council should be able to remove an appointed official for willful failure to follow codes or ordinances, but Alderperson Joyce Zeller said she doesn't think the people of Eureka Springs will sit still for the city council taking power out of the hands of the mayor.
"If I were thinking of serving on a commission, I wouldn't want to serve if the city council could decide they wanted to remove me," Zeller said. "You are allowing the city council to make value judgment on someone's performance, and value judgments are not fair."
Monarchy vs. democracy
Scheunemann responded that it is not a value judgment, but whether a procedure is being followed. He likened the issue to a monarchy if the mayor has final say or a democracy if the council has final say.
"In this body we represent the people, and the mayor represents upholding the law," Scheunemann said. "The power lies in this body. We are following democratic principals by adopting this."
Harrison said it is a matter of whether or not the appointed official is following the rules.
"It is pretty obvious if you are or are not," Harrison said.
In other action, council voted to increase the salary of the city clerk by three percent per year, the same raises already given to other city employees. And there was discussion of marking crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety.