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Largo concludes data center debate
Largo commission validates proposed building, agrees on new location
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LARGO – While Largo commissioners ultimately dismissed citizen-proposed alternatives to a city-owned data center, they did agree to move the location of the building away from the library parking lot where it would have blocked residents’ view of Largo Central Park.

Progress on the $2.6 million project has been moving forward despite concerns raised by commissioners and the public as to the necessity of the center. The objections began with the building’s price tag, which came in at about $1 million over budget when the final design was presented in November.

Largo city staff spent most of the work session on Jan. 15 addressing those concerns and making the case for the validity of the data center. The commission was asked to decide on three points: whether the city needed a data center at all, if such a building should be owned by the city or leased and finally, where the building should be located.

The need for a data center

At the core of the first question is the fact that the second floor of Largo City Hall is at its capacity to hold the city's computing infrastructure. The floor itself won’t support any more physical weight and is at its max capacity as far as electrical and air-conditioning needs of the equipment, said Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert.

IT Director Harold Schomaker explained generally two options the city had to outsource its data services: cloud computing and off-site hosting. Both could potentially save the city money, by utilizing the resources of a private company to fulfill the city’s computing needs. But both options raised additional concerns, such as the need for encrypted security for law enforcement information among other sensitive files, the dependence on a reliable Internet connection and potential difficulty of maintenance or repairs that might have to be done in person.

Commissioner Curtis Holmes asked the commission to consider a proposal from DSM Technology Consultants, based in Lakeland. The company would “provide this service at a fraction of the cost of building, maintaining, and constantly upgrading your own facility,” a Jan. 8 email from company Business Development Manager Gary Pollard stated.

Answering a question from Commission Jamie Robinson, Schomaker cut to the chase.

“We would still need a data center even if we moved a lot of our stuff to the cloud and/or had it hosted. Because we have a network infrastructure in the city that needs to be maintained,” he said.

Build or lease

Another proposal from Businessman John Hopengarten of Westchase Group suggested the city lease the first floor in his proposed office building at 701 Highland Ave in order to save money. Upon analyzing his proposal, city staff ceded that the proposal could save the city money, but only about $607,364 over the course of a five-year lease and only $88,760 if that lease extended to 10 years.

Holmes argued that as fast as technology was improving, the city might not need the literal space a data center provided beyond Hopengarten’s proposed lease term, making the construction of a brand new building not worth the extra expense. Schomaker said the data center would be needed “for the foreseeable future.”

Commissioner Woody Brown said the fact that the city was using land it already owned made a difference.

“If we were certain that we wouldn’t need a data center in five years, hosting or leasing would be a really sound financial decision,” he said. “If we’re going to have that data center for 10 or 15 years, in the end I think we’re going to save money if we do it on our own property.”

Another factor in the difference between leasing and building a data center is the source of the funds to pay for it. If the city builds the center, it can use capital funds from the Local Option Sales Tax. Leasing a building would require an ongoing expense, charged from the general fund, as well as a revision to the operating budget.

Location, location

With the first two matters decided, the commissioners moved onto the location of the building. Mayor Pat Gerard expressed frustration that the future neighbors of the data center as proposed weren’t consulted earlier in the design phase. The residents of the Lake Alison subdivision have argued that the building would interrupt their homes’ view of Largo Central Park and change the ambiance of Central Park Drive.

Gerard agreed, saying that the building’s location at the southwest corner of the library parking lot within the park would be “taking up some of that green space” with “an utilitarian building.”

City staff proposed a new location, within the space set aside for the Largo Parks Division to the west of the library. Commissioner Harriet Crozier suggested the spot be moved slightly and built closer to the Largo Feed Store, potentially taking up a few spaces at the southwest end of the parking lot for the Largo Cultural Center.

After working through a few potential problems, staff agreed that the new location would be better than the alternative previously proposed.

The majority of the commissioners agreed that the new site would be better than the one south of the library.

“I think to most people it’s about equal. But to about 10 people, it’s a lot better there,” Brown said, referring to the Lake Alison residents.

Schubert said the cost of the data center would have to include some additional design fees as staff and its hired consultants worked out the details of the new location.
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