PATTERSON — The St. Mary Parish Tourism Commission hired special legal representation and heard from several key personnel associated with the Cajun Coast Welcome Center in Morgan City.
The structure unexpectedly sank several feet into the ground before being completed June 14 after painters reported the building was failing and were told to evacuate immediately.
After entering an executive session at a Wednesday meeting, the body reemerged and unanimously expanded the agenda to retain the services of Gary McGoffin of Lafayette-based Durio, McGoffin, Stagg & Ackermann on the recommendation of board attorney Russel Cremaldi.
Cremaldi then explained to the board the importance of hiring a lawyer specializing in this type of law.
“We have a complex matter involving a lot of money and a building in the $3.5 million to $4 million range,” he said. “If I go to a doctor and tell him I have heart problems, he sends me to a cardiologist. When we have a (legal) problem like this, we need an attorney experienced in contract litigation. We go get the best we can get in order to protect the public funds involved, and in this particular case, we need an attorney with special experience and knowledge of contract litigation.”
Cremaldi said McGoffin’s special knowledge of contracts, soil testing, architectural contracting matters and so forth made him a crucial part of the tourism commission’s plan to have the damaged building repaired.
“I can tell you the other parties have very highly qualified experts (attorneys) in the field also,” he said. “My strongest recommendation is that you hire special legal counsel and it has to be done with the vote of this board. I can tell you (McGoffin) is very well qualified. Not only is he highly qualified to handle this type of litigation but he is experienced with the other attorneys involved.”
Cremaldi also said the Lafayette attorney has already been meeting and talking with the other involved parties and he thought the board would be “remiss to not hire special counsel in order to correct the losses this public body has sustained.”
After a unanimous vote to hire McGoffin, the attorney then gave a report on the status of the building as well as plans to begin repairing the structure.
He said “a lot of ground had been covered” since he was contacted last week and he had already visited the damaged, incomplete Cajun Coast Welcome Center twice.
The building was about a month from substantial completion.
He added he already had “discussions” with the architecture firm WHLC of Baton Rouge, contractor Aegis Construction of La Place and other companies involved in the process.
McGoffin said another meeting on the structure is planned for July 5 at 10 a.m. in Baton Rouge.
“Everyone is taking this very seriously and understands the importance of this project,” he said. “The building was about 30 days from substantial completion and everyone put a lot of time and effort into it.”
McGoffin said the building settled about 3.5 feet and has “substantially completed its path and does not seem to have settled any further.”
He said to assure that the building is no longer sinking, Cajun Coast will have an engineering firm survey the facility to “see where the elevations are right now” in order to complete the analysis of what happened and assure the tourism commission there will be no further sinking.
In addressing the issue of beginning repairs on the structure, McGoffin said he wanted to make sure the professionals who have worked on the project have the opportunity to figure out what happened.
He also said all involved companies have been very cooperative in the initial stages of beginning the evaluation process.
“It has been very gratifying so far to see the cooperation and I expect that to continue,” McGoffin said. “There will be bumps in the road, there always are, but you have qualified professionals and good documentation in place to allow them to review the parts they were responsible for and come up with answers to the questions we all share.”
In the meantime, a major concern is preserving the structure from nature and the elements.
McGoffin said after visiting the structure, he was surprised to find the interior of the structure in surprisingly good condition.
He said the board, along with the companies involved, still needed to assess the total cost of repairing the structure, but in the meantime, the visitor’s center had to be protected from elements, insects, mildew and mold.
To achieve this goal, McGoffin said Cajun Coast was working with the architecture and engineering firms to see what needs to be done to seal off the structure and get air conditioning into the building.
He added one “interesting” recommendation discussed was actually shrink-wrapping the building, among other options.
McGoffin said the roof was sufficient to protect from rain, negating the need to place a blue tarp on the roof.
The architects will make their recommendations to the contractor to seal it up.
Despite obvious damage to the outside of the building, he said interior doors worked, leading him to believe there has not been a great deal of declination.
He said he and other involved parties agreed the foundation of the building will also be easier to repair due to the way the beams holding the structure foundation were laid out.
“We were worried there were long beams running the length of the building that would have to be replaced,” he said. “But, in fact, there is a series of short beams going the short way across the building, so you don’t have that problem.” McGoffin compared the building’s current bent position to that of a caterpillar able to bend without totally breaking.
Beyond the actual repair of the structure, the attorney also said work will be done to minimally impact the environment around the structure.
He acknowledged this was important to the building because “it was intended to highlight the swamp and be a destination for this area to really open up this end of the Atchafalaya basin and everything you have to offer down here. These considerations are just as important to us as the construction. Everyone has expressed a great sensitivity to that as we go forward on an expedited basis.”
Another important future consideration McGoffin mentioned was the fact that all involved parties wanted to avoid years of litigation and expedite the repair and completion of the welcome center.
But one possible delay was the need of additional permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair the foundation.
“We have to look to see the scope of the permit we have now to put in an application to the Corps, then see when it is approved,” he said. “This makes me hesitant to give a firm timeline because of possible delays.”
Aegis Construction attorney Sonny Shields said his firm was also there to help find out exactly what happened and had already assembled a team of experts, including a Ph.D. in soil science, to get this thing done.
“No one knows more about the building than the contractor, and we just want to finish it,” he said.
This included finding the right contractor to execute repairs to the foundation once repair design work is completed.
Aegis President Kent Liliedahl said his entire team was “sick that it happened” but added the silver lining was that the building did not fail “at a grand opening with 150 people there or worse, a busload full of children.”
“The team of Aegis Construction and WHLC are all working together in a mutual way to find out what happened and how we can salvage it,” he said. “We don’t know what happened, but we want to work hard to make it right.”