Pinellas County Commission contemplates move from downtown Clearwater

The historic courthouse at 315 Court St. is the only property that will have to remain if Pinellas County decides to move its main campus out of downtown Clearwater.

Downtown Clearwater doesn’t have enough space to accommodate Pinellas County’s needs going into the future.

That was the message from the consultant hired to evaluate the county’s facilities to determine if they are adequate to provide an efficient and safe work environment, as well as a place that can serve the public’s needs.

The county hired Stantec to do a space needs assessment, which began 18 months ago. Bret Sherman and Sydney Hamilton provided county commissioners with an interim report during the Oct. 21 work session.

Hamilton said the assessment of the physical condition of county-owned spaces showed that more than half “had seen better days.” Of the 23 building assessed, 9% were in poor condition, 22% in poor/fair condition, 26% in fair/good condition and 43% were in good condition.

Commissioner Janet Long said she was “amazed” that Stantec had found the courthouse building at 315 Court St. to be in good shape. She said over the years anytime they wanted to do work on the building, they haven’t been able to due to antiquated equipment.

Hamilton said the building had been rated fair/good, meaning it needs work.

“I wouldn’t consider it favorable,” she said.

Commissioner Charlie Justice said at one time the commission had wanted to replace the windows in the courthouse but because of the condition of the building it was cost prohibitive.

Hamilton reminded commissioners that the assessment considered the building as a whole, everything from the AC to the carpets.

She said the information from the study had been used to compare the efficiency of Pinellas County’s spaces to its peers. Targets for the number of seats required for employees had been set based on the county’s needs and industry best practices. The targets had been reviewed by a steering committee, the departments and a focus group, before going through a second review.

Currently, the county is using 743,000 net square feet, which is the usable area of individual rooms or spaces available for furnishings, equipment and personnel, including storage areas but excluding any area that cannot be occupied, such as structural columns or walls.

Stantec says the county actually needs 690,000 NSF and that number could be adjusted depending on the number of staff that might telecommute now and in the future.

Hamilton said during the pandemic many employees worked from home and some are continuing to do so. She said based on estimates for 10 years into the future for remote workers, the county’s space needs could be down to 661,000 NSF. By comparison, if all workers worked on site, the space needs would increase to 710,000 for the same 10 years.

The county’s assigned square foot per seat is currently 397. Hamilton said the “right-sized” average would be 256, or 234 for the teleworking average. Many of the county’s space standards are larger than industry best practices and many are not efficient.

Hamilton said the reason is that many of the buildings were designed for something else and had been adapted for reuse, using the former jail building as an example.

As Stantec worked on evaluating the county’s space needs, they divided departments into five functional groupings. Function was a big consideration as was physical locations. Hamilton said it makes sense for some departments to be located to close to one another.

When they finished the evaluations, the conclusion was “downtown is probably not the best long-term solution,” Hamilton said.

She said they looked at all types of configurations and designs for the buildings the county owns, but they still couldn’t find a good solution that supported the needed functionality. She said adding in the problem with traffic and parking in downtown Clearwater made the area even less suitable.

Sherman said estimates for a new campus showed a need for a site with 19 to 22 acres of land. The best case scenario would be to find something on or around U.S. 19, so that is where the search for land is focused, he said. Sherman said a U.S. 19 location would be the most efficient for accessing county facilities from all parts of the county.

Everyone conceded that it wouldn’t be easy to find suitable land the size that is needed. It is possible that the commission may have to consider building a split campus.

“Finding 20 acres is next to impossible,” said County Administrator Barry Burton.

Sherman said Stantec was trying to find as many options as possible. He cautioned the commission to “not let perfect be the enemy” when it came to the assembly of land.

Eggers brought up the “political overlay” of moving out of Clearwater. Burton said he has talked to Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, adding that the county would work with the city through the entire process. Burton pointed out that the historic courthouse is the only building that has to stay. The others are all unknowns.

Stantec did not provide a cost estimate for a new campus; however, the commission did briefly talk about ways to raise revenue, including selling the property owned by the county, especially now while the market is favorable to the seller.

One suggestion was to sell some of the smaller properties in poor condition.

Regardless of what happens, it will be done in phases and it won’t be soon.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.