No future for old police headquarters, says chief

In January 1978, construction was underway for Homer’s new police headquarters, a single-story facility being built behind the city’s already existing fire hall. Plans called for the 59-by-44-foot building also to house the state police and Alaska Department of Fish and Game enforcement. Cost of the building: $386,240.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Public Safety Building Review Committee, a five-member committee established in January by the Homer City Council to explore the city’s need for a new public safety facility, committee member Homer Chief of Police Mark Robl made clear the condition of the 36-year old police headquarters.

“I see no utility in the building that’s there now,” said Robl. “I don’t see a reasonable means to repurpose it and use it in the future.”

Robl’s statement left no doubt a new building is needed and that problems that have arisen since the police headquarters were built in 1978 make the building unsuitable for any future use.

For Ken Castner, committee chair, Robl’s assessment made it possible for Castner to “look people in the eye and say, ‘look, we talked about this and there is no utility in that building.’ This is a tear-down situation.”

Asked for his assessment of the existing fire station, committee member Fire Chief Bob Painter said there was still value in the building, but not for its current use.

“When I got here in 1991, the fire chief then had plans from the original architect that called for expansion of the existing facility,” said Painter of increasing administrative space without enlarging the building’s footprint, a project estimated to cost $2.5 million at the time. 

While that would have resolved the immediate need, Painter said it wouldn’t have met future needs of the fire station.

“As far as a fire station, it’s obsolete,” said Painter.

“So, that pretty much steers us to going someplace new, going to build new,” said Castner.

The Fairbanks firm of Stantec, formerly USKH, and Loren Berry Architect of Springfield, Ore., have completed a space needs assessment with projections for years 2014 and 2034.

Representatives of the two firms participated in Tuesday’s meeting to review their findings and answer questions.

According to the report, the fire department currently has five full-time employees and 40 volunteers; in 20 years, it will have grown to 14 full-time employees and 50 volunteers, with a space need of 34,873 square feet. 

The police department currently has a total staff of 26 and is projected to need 38 by 2034 and a working area of 39,192 square feet.

Housing fire and police in one one-story building would require a 4.66-acre site. A two-story facility would require 4.31 acres, according to the needs assessment. 

“My question is ‘are the results of our space needs study reasonable?’” Robl asked Jack Berry of Loren Berry Architect.

Although the fire department’s volunteers make it “a little more difficult” to determine space needs, Berry said, “One thing I’ve learned is that smaller cities don’t necessarily have smaller facilities. Certain elements are the same size for every building. More to the point, the place where you book people, that size can’t be minimized much more. So yes, I think it’s very fair.”

In Homer’s 2015-2020 Capital Improvement Plan, a new public safety building has been ranked No. 2 of the city’s top five legislative priorities. The plan estimated the total project cost at $15.3 million. 

At the city council’s regular meeting on Monday, in Castner’s update on the Public Safety Building Review Committee’s work, he noted the space needs analysis pointed to a building with more than 50,000 square feet. 

Based on the cost per square foot of the harbormaster office currently under construction on the Spit, Castner anticipated the public safety building would surpass the CIP’s estimation of $15.3.

“The total is probably in the neighborhood of $25 million. This all of a sudden is a different kettle of fish,” he said. “That’s where we are on space needs.” 

Castner raised the likelihood of the larger and more costly anticipated building at the committee’s meeting on Tuesday, directing his question specifically at committee member Mayor Beth Wythe. 

“I just want to know, especially you, Beth, of the economic reality of raising that amount,” said Castner. 

Having toured both the police and fire stations and heard Robl and Painter list the many deficiencies of each building, Wythe said she believed there was a need for a new facility.

“When you know the cost is escalating, you need to move forward more quickly. Every year it’s put off, it becomes more and more expensive,” said Wythe.

“I feel we should continue to move forward until the council says we don’t need to move forward.” 

During closing comments at Tuesday’s committee meeting, Castner raised two policy matters “the council needs to decide upon” that will help guide the committee in its work. The first had to do with clarifying if the council had already chosen a location for the new public safety building, specifically if it had selected the site currently occupied by the HERC Building. The other matter Castner wanted clarified was if the city would consider leasing a building for the new public safety facility.

A public presentation of the space needs analysis is being planned for 6 p.m. Sept. 10 in the Council Chambers.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

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