Holly Springs sign plan rebooted

Cost, contractor troubles derail Holly Springs monument

akenney@newsobserver.com June 17, 2012 

— A contractor’s about-face and a few miscalculations have unraveled months of town work on a $30,000 sign meant to honor local nonprofits. Now the monument has been delayed by creeping costs and confusion.

Everything looked peachy in April, when Rodney’s Custom Cut Sign Company formally proposed to build the 13-foot-high, 28-foot-wide monument with stone columns, lanterns and sand-blasted text at a cost of about $24,000. After years of talk around town, groups such as Kiwanis International would have a prominent public place for their logos. Construction awaited only the town manager’s signature.

Then the wheels fell off. By the end of May, the contractor’s cost estimates had soared, problems with the site had appeared, and the much-discussed vision faced a reboot. But the plan, conceived three years ago, still has some life in it.

“We would like people riding through our town to see what kind of civic groups we have – and we will do this. We will do this,” said Mayor Dick Sears.

Back and forth

At the root of the project’s trouble is the town’s working relationship with Rodney’s Custom Cut Sign Company, a local company that has done plenty of previous jobs for Holly Springs.

Rodney’s had beat out two competitors with an estimate early this year that it could complete the sign for about $24,000. After Rodney’s got the nod, its representative, who has since resigned, began an exchange of dozens of emails and phone calls with Town Planner Mark Zawadski.

The two searched for vendors, ordered samples and hammered out costs. At least once, Zawadski cautioned the Rodney’s employee that the expenses were outpacing the budget. The Rodney’s employee agreed, saying he would waive the company’s markup and administrative costs to keep spending down.

By mid-April, Zawadski said, the project appeared to be on track and on budget. The former Rodney’s manager had prepared a formal proposal, which the town considers a “final construction contract,” that said Rodney’s part of the sign could be built for the budgeted $24,000.

On April 20, Town Manager Carl Dean signed and dated the proposal, he said. And on April 21, Mark Zawadski heard, with no explanation, that his counterpart at Rodney’s had departed the company. (The departure was unrelated to the project, said Eric Lott, a manager at Rodney’s.)

Lott then took over his company’s side of the project. He quickly found, he said, that the project had been badly mispriced.

Costs spiral

Within weeks of taking the reins, Lott dramatically refigured his company’s pitch. For example, where the former employee had promised “custom limestone,” Lott specified a manufacturer and color. The most dramatic change, though, was in cost.

Under a revised proposal, submitted May 4, every part of the sign’s cost increased significantly. Masonry work alone, first estimated at $13,000, grew to $21,000. Overall, the project’s cost grew by 58 percent from the estimate the company had provided in January and again in April.

Town staff refused to sign the new proposal. The change “was definitely a shock to hear and a disappointment for us, because we’d put in months of work with them,” planner Zawadski told the council.

Lott, the Rodney’s Signs manager, in part blames the town for the delays, saying staff should have had specific demands prepared and itemized from the beginning of the project. He didn’t know why his former employee would underestimate the cost proposal, he said.

“We can’t really determine that,” Lott said. “We didn’t know what all was in discussion as far as the preliminary price quote.”

Clapp, the planning director, said the town had purposefully started with only a general plan. The original bid contained an illustration, dimensions and general choices of materials; Clapp expected Rodney’s to find materials, methods and details that would get the requested sign built within budget, she said.

The town now is searching for a new contractor on the project, which was supposed to be finished this month. Town staff will again have to negotiate expenses and pick suppliers – and they may need a new location.

Staff didn’t notice until recently that their planned site for the sign, a corner of South Main Street and G.B. Alford Highway, doesn’t have easy electricity service; a hook-up would cost $2,000. Now council are debating whether they might move the sign to the N.C. 55 Bypass, or closer to the center of town. They’ll also decide how much money civic organizations will pay to get their logo on the monument. So far, three of six national civic groups have expressed interest in buying space.

The town’s efforts so far have brought “some value in the research and development and experience we gained,” Zawadski said. “But, ultimately, we don’t have a sign after all that work.”

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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