Child safety among aims in $592,000 renovation underway at Arkansas Governor’s Mansion

Arkansas’ Governor’s Mansion is in the midst of a privately financed renovation with an estimated cost of $592,000 for construction that started at the end of February and is tracking to wrap up at the end of April, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ spokeswoman said.

There were improvements that had to be made for the safety of Sanders’ three children, and the project includes renovating the upstairs living space and bedrooms, spokeswoman Alexa Henning said.

“This is the first time in decades young children have lived in the mansion,” Henning said last week in a statement responding to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s questions about the need for the renovation and the scope of the project.

The Governor’s Mansion Association is paying for the cost of the renovation with zero cost to the taxpayer, Henning said.

The renovation’s estimated cost is $592,000 for construction, with Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. as the contractor, she said.

“The Governor and First Gentleman reviewed multiple bids and selected the lowest out of the options and most efficient for the renovation, which will come at zero cost to taxpayers,” Henning said.

Baldwin & Shell has completed a number of projects at the Governor’s Mansion in the past, and “we know they will do a great job,” she said.

Asked whether one person and/or company or multiple people and/or companies are contributing money to cover the cost of the renovation, Henning replied in her statement, “Funding for this is provided by private donations received to the Governor’s Mansion Association, a group that is committed to the preservation of the home used by Arkansas’ governors to live and welcome Arkansans.”

Sanders is the daughter of Mike Huckabee, who served as the state’s governor from July 1996 until 2007. She is a former White House press secretary for former President Donald Trump.

A few groups have contacted the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and indicated that they were planning to hold events at the Governor’s Mansion in the past few months, but were informed they wouldn’t be able to do so at that time.

Asked why the mansion has been off limits for use by outside groups since Sanders was sworn in on Jan. 10, Henning said, “The mansion remains operational and has not been ‘off limits’ since the Governor was sworn in.

“There was an event on MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.] Day at the mansion, and the Governor has hosted the GOP caucus multiple times,” she said in her statement.

There will also be events in April including the Governor’s Scholastic Honors Day and Arkansas Prayer Breakfast, Henning said.

“Governor Sanders and First Gentleman Bryan Sanders are excited about the improvements being made to the Mansion –at zero costs to taxpayers — so their young family and future families can reside safely in the home,” she said.

“The Governor and First Gentleman are thankful to the Mansion Association Board for their work and commitment to improving the home,” Henning said. “The mansion is an important and beautiful piece of history for Arkansans, and the Governor, First Gentleman, Scarlett, Huck, and George are looking forward to making it their home for the next eight years.”

Asked when outside groups will be allowed to use the mansion for events and how frequently that will be allowed and for what events, Henning said, “Regular events will be held once the renovations are complete, with young children, the Governor, and First Gentleman plan to hold more breakfast and lunch events while the kids are at school.”

Among the improvements at the mansion under former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration, a nearly $817,000 overhaul was wrapped up in the fall of 2018 after starting in the summer of 2016, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s archives. While many of the grant-funded renovations were structural, numerous cosmetic improvements were made as well.

A $1.1 million Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council grant, financed through the state’s real estate transfer tax, paid for the improvements, and the mansion later returned about $300,000 of the funding to the council.

Since 1989, the first year that the council disbursed grants, the mansion has received several million dollars in council grants for renovations and expansions.

The renovation during Hutchinson’s administration came after his spokesman, J.R. Davis, said in May of 2016 that a rat infestation, structural problems and deferred maintenance warranted a change in the structure’s supervising commission. Hutchinson signed into law legislation specifying that Governor’s Mansion commissioners serve at the will of the governor and that the commission no longer makes rules concerning improvements and repairs at the mansion.

Among the improvements at the mansion during former Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration was extensive renovation of the grounds in 2007 and early 2008, according to the Democrat-Gazette’s archives.

The new landscaping was designed by nationally known Arkansas garden designer P. Allen Smith, who started the design work in 2006. Smith’s intention was to create a garden space that reflects the state’s natural beauty and its place in history.

The gardens were made possible through fundraising efforts by the Governor’s Mansion Association, including grant money from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, private money and the generosity of P. Allen Smith & Associates.

In October 2006, the fundraising efforts of Sanders’ mother, Janet Huckabee, were recognized with the dedication of the mansion’s 13,950-square-foot Janet M. Huckabee Grand Hall, according to the Democrat-Gazette’s archives. She led the fundraising that financed much of the $3 million hall.

Janet Huckabee likes to say that visiting the Governor’s Mansion is like “coming to the front door of Arkansas,” and one of her objectives during her 10 years as the state’s first lady was making it a nicer place to visit, according to a Democrat-Gazette article in October 2006.

Before the opening of the Grand Hall in 2003, large events at the mansion were held outside in a heated tent. The Grand Hall was one of several construction projects that took place on the grounds during Huckabee’s tenure as governor.

In 2000, the Huckabees moved into a triple-wide mobile home during a $1.4 million renovation of the mansion that included new plumbing and wiring as well as the installation of an elevator and other accommodations for wheelchair users. They moved back into the Governor’s Mansion in late 2001.

The Governor’s Mansion opened in 1950. Sid McMath was the first governor to live in the mansion.

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