Clearwater officials are looking to replace aging Fire Station 45, which was built in 1974. The station also serves as the fire department’s headquarters.
CLEARWATER – Clearwater Fire Chief Robert Weiss knew his pet project, a $13.3 million replacement for the aging Fire Station 45, was in trouble when Vice Mayor Paul Gibson referred to it as “a Taj Mahal” at the council's Oct. 4 meeting.
City officials have long known that Station 45, which was built in 1974 and also serves as the fire department’s headquarters, was reaching the end of its useful life and would soon need replacement. Based on an earlier estimate of the cost, they budgeted $8 million for the project. So they experienced a severe case of sticker shock when Weiss came back last week with a revised estimate of $13.3 million.
Mayor George Cretekos was astounded by the cost overrun. He criticized Weiss for not going to the architect and contractor and saying, “Hey, I’ve got $8 million; give me what I need for $8 million,” instead of saying “This is what I want; build it.”
But Weiss defended the project, saying that the new station, to be built on a vacant lot on Court Street, would be attractive, functional, eco-friendly and capable of withstanding 150 mph winds from a Category 5 hurricane. The first floor would have four vehicle bays, space for apparatus and equipment storage, work space and a decontamination room. The second floor would have gender-specific, dormitory-style living quarters, and the third story would house the department’s administrative offices.
“We didn’t walk into the process saying that we have a blank checkbook,” Weiss said. “We worked very hard around that $8 million, but the $8 million grew to $10 million and the $10 million grew to $11 million and then to $12 million.”
Weiss said that the $300-per-square-foot price is a bargain, considering that an Orlando fire station built in 2009 cost $350 per square foot. But Gibson countered that a New Tampa fire station built last year cost just $196 per square foot.
The council then turned to Councilwoman Doreen Hock DiPolito for advice. Hock-DiPolito, who runs her family’s construction business, is considered the council’s expert on construction matters. She took a middle-of-the-road approach, saying that the chances of getting the station for $8 million are virtually nil, but if the materials are “value-engineered” and the design is simplified, it needn’t cost $13.3 million either.
“It’s not going to have this kind of architecture,” Hock-DiPolito said of the compromise design she proposed. “It will have a lot more calm, clean lines. ...And you should be able to reach a number between 13 (million dollars) and 8 (million dollars).”
Although she did not specifically recommend it in this case, Hock-DiPolitto said that public-private partnerships, in which fire stations share buildings with commercial enterprises, are a growing phenomenon
The council decided to postpone a vote on the project to give the council and staff time to evaluate the alternatives. But City Manager Bill Horne told the councilmembers that they need to be very specific about what they want so city staffers don’t waste a lot of time on designs that aren’t what the council had in mind. Scott Rice of the city’s engineering department said that a new design would have to be approved by the Community Development Board and other city agencies, and could delay the project by as much as six months. And Weiss warned that changing the design would cause HDR Engineering, which could get nearly $11 million of the $13.3 million, to raise its price.
Nevertheless, Mayor Cretekos delayed a decision on the fire station until Nov. 25.