MADEIRA BEACH – A town hall meeting on Oct. 10 attended by close to 100 residents has dramatically changed the scope and direction of a new Madeira Beach municipal complex being planned for the city hall/fire station property.
The project had been in a scale-back mode since a sparse number of residents attending a similar session last month expressed little interest in the ambitious plans being proposed and mostly questioned the cost.
This time, a large crowd with a different outlook showed up. Their comments during a session where residents could interact with the project’s designers have resulted in an expansion of the plan. It will now include not only construction of a new city hall, fire station and a multi-purpose building, but a new recreation center and renovation of the athletic fields as well.
A reconstruction of the recreation area, which would add another $3 million to the $6 million cost, had not even been discussed at the meeting. That part of the project had been viewed as a second phase that could be added in at a later date, and was put aside after costs became a major concern.
But City Manager Shane Crawford opened the meeting by making a strong case for undertaking the entire project at once. The city can afford it, he said, and with construction costs at an all-time low, now is the time to do it.
Crawford recommended the city make a “down payment” of $3.5 million, and finance the rest.
Though the city has cash on hand to pay the project’s entire nearly $9 million cost, he said other pressing projects such as storm water control, street paving and Archibald Park improvements need to move forward as well.
Interest rates are low, Crawford said, and the debt can be paid off with future city revenues.
“Can we do this without raising taxes? The answer is yes,” Crawford said.
Jason Jensen of Wannemacher Jensen Architects provided a look at the project’s elements and cost, which he had done before.
Several residents wanted to know why the current city hall cannot be renovated for less than the $3 million estimated.
Jensen said the current building’s problems are major and include a leaking roof and windows, mold infestation, air conditioning failure, fire hazards, and the structure’s inability to survive a major storm, among other shortcomings.
Also, the building needs technological updates, including the system that allows people to view the commission meeting on TV and the Internet, Crawford said.
Jensen invited those attending the meetings to take a tour of the city hall and fire station to view the problems.
“What you see is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
A major stumbling block to any renovation effort is a FEMA rule that requires current codes be met if repair costs exceed 50 percent of the value of a structure. The current city hall and fire station are estimated to be worth $800,000, Jensen said. So the rule would apply to repairs exceeding $400,000.
Meeting code would require elevating the building or flood proofing it, plus other costly renovations.
“The FEMA issue, that’s the crux,” Crawford said. “A bunch of other expensive renovations kick in.”
“Parts of the city hall building are over 60 years old,” said Crawford. “It has exceeded its life cycle. We can’t be looking in the rearview mirror anymore.”
After hearing the comments by Crawford and Jensen, resident Peter Pisciotta said the presentation was, in his view, one-sided.
“We have 20 people trying to sell this idea. Who is selling the status quo?” he asked.
Jensen replied, “We have looked at renovation (of the buildings). It is not feasible. It is not going to happen.”
Following breakout sessions where residents could meet with the project’s architects and designers, and look at deterioration of the city hall and fire station, they were invited to give their opinions on the civic center proposal.
Only a small portion of the crowd returned, but most wanted the project to include Phase 2, with the recreation center and athletic field upgrades added.
“Go for the whole thing, do the recreation center at the same time,” said Robin Stach. He added, “But do it right, and maintain it.”
Crawford later said he had picked up similar comments from residents during the breakout session.
“To a person, they said, ‘Go bigger and do it all,’” Crawford said.
Jensen said the civic center plans will be revised to incorporate the recreation area, including the rec center and athletic fields. He predicted greater efficiencies would come from the larger scale project.
“You are going to save with efficiencies in construction by adding Phase 2, and we will show you that,” Jensen promised.
The commission gave Crawford a go-ahead to begin planning for a larger scale project.
“This is frankly the best way to go,” said Commissioner Terry Lister. “We’ve got the community support and the other projects will not suffer.”
In a follow-up e-mail sent to residents, Vice Mayor Robin Vander Velde said, “The commission will either say yes or no to continue planning for both Phase 1 and 2 at the workshop on Tuesday (Oct. 23).”
She urged residents to complete an opinion survey on the project, distributed at the meeting. An online version of the survey can be accessed at the city’s website, www.madeirabeachfl.gov.
The city is especially interested in knowing whether residents favor an expanded fitness center open to the public.