JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State University plans to demolish Merrill Hall while pursuing arbitration to settle a dispute with state insurers over a payout for the building, according to information presented at a meeting of JSU’s board of trustees Tuesday.
Merrill Hall is scheduled to be demolished beginning on July 22, more than a year after the project was originally approved. According to Jim Brigham, JSU’s vice president for finance and administration, the university received written approval from state attorneys to go ahead with the demolition despite ongoing arbitration.
“We’ve had to file for arbitration because we haven’t been able to make progress on a resolution with insurance,” JSU President John Beehler said during the trustees’ emergency meeting Tuesday. “We’re going to go to arbitration probably early this fall. We’re setting the arbitrator up with times and dates as we speak, and hopefully we can resolve the disagreement on Merrill.”
JSU has been locked for months in the disagreement with the state Finance Department, insurer for the university, over the proof of loss for Merrill Hall, the former home of the school’s business program that was heavily damaged in the March 19, 2018, tornado that swept through Jacksonville. Brigham told trustees in January that the state offered $15 million for the building, while the university believes it is owed $22 million. The university’s School of Business and Industry has operated since the storm at the former campus of Kitty Stone Elementary School, which JSU owns.
Beehler said he does not believe an arbitrator will need to visit Merrill Hall during the arbitration process, but the university will make arrangements for it to happen before the July 22 demolition date if necessary.
After the plan for demolition and arbitration was announced, the board entered into executive session, behind closed doors, for more than two hours during Tuesday’s meeting to discuss “possible litigation,” returning only to adjourn the meeting.
JSU attorney Sam Monk told The Star earlier this month that the university had informally discussed pursuing arbitration to reach a settlement on Merrill Hall.
Brigham also said during Tuesday’s meeting that a $34 million loan from Regions Bank, which was announced in April, will become available for JSU on July 10. The loan is set to help with costs until an insurance settlement for Merrill is finalized.
Despite entering arbitration, Beehler said the university is excited to finally be able to begin demolition on Merrill.
“We got clearance from the state, and we’re going to be demolishing it,” Beehler said. “It’ll be a blessing for everyone, because that sight brings back ugly memories of the tornado.”
Also during the meeting, the trustees:
— Heard from Beehler that enrollment numbers for summer and fall semesters are up. Summer enrollment is up 14 percent over last year and is at its highest since 2014, while fall enrollment is up 8.6 percent from where it was at the same time in 2018.
— Approved the charter for a new Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee within the board of trustees. Greg Brown, Tony Smoke, state Sen.Vivian Figures and Tony Ingram will serve on the committee.
— Heard from Tim King, JSU’s vice president of student affairs, about a potential shortage of housing options for incoming freshmen. King said a waiting list had been created for female students.