The Homer City Council held a special work session March 20 to hear a presentation on next steps for the Homer Education and Recreation Complex, specifically the smaller, second building that has been a point of discussion for many years.
Economic Development Manager Julie Engebretsen, Public Works Director Jan Keiser, and Community Recreation Manager Mike Illg presentated at the event.
Four tasks for moving forward to the development of a “modern, safe recreation center” were discussed during the presentation: resolution of the redevelopment hurdles of the HERC site, including demolition of the HERC 2 building; creation of a business plan and cost recovery model for a new facility; determining the process by which decisions will be made on right sizing the building; and creating plan for capital funding of a new facility.
“We’re at the point where we’re needing to make some decisions, or we’re going to be talking about dreams for another five years,” Engebretsen said in her presentation introduction.
The first step toward any redevelopment of the site where the HERC is located is demolition of the HERC 2 building, Engebretsen and Keiser said.
The council previously discussed the demolition during their regular meeting on Feb. 27, where they killed a resolution to test HERC 2 for PCBs.
During a Committee of the Whole meeting also on Feb. 27, the council heard from lead hazmat consultant Chris Ottosen with HTRW, LLC, the company that would have been contracted to test the building for PCBs had the resolution not been voted down. Ottosen’s insight regarding the impact that the testing might have on the demolition and cost raised serious concerns for the council, and they postponed testing until they could meet with staff, including Keiser, and discuss the matter further.
HERC 2 currently sits empty and is “ready to be torn down,” Keiser told the council. She noted that “visible progress” has been made toward the demolition, including the removal of Public Works staff from the building and the identification of hazardous materials that need to be abated. Once testing is done to “better quantify” the hazardous materials in HERC 2, Public Works will be ready to move forward with a procurement for a contract to abate the hazardous materials and demolish the building.
“But we think we can get that done this summer,” Keiser said. “So by the end of 2023, the little HERC building could be gone, and what you would have in its place is a location that would provide an empty slot for continuing development of your recreation center.”
During the Feb. 27 regular meeting, the council debated whether to test or not test for PCBs, whether testing was required and by whom, and what would happen to the demolition schedule and cost if PCBs were found in the building. Keiser answered these questions during the March 20 work session, prefacing her answers with the bottom line that “uncertainty always yields higher prices.”
“What I have learned in all [my experience] is this one golden rule: Uncertainty is perceived as risk by the contractors and the contractors always price risk higher,” she told the council. “So the uncertainty related to [HERC 2] is what exactly is in the building and, more importantly, where the contractors can take the demolition waste.”
When an application was previously submitted to the borough to send the demolition debris to the landfill, the borough answered that they could not accept any of the waste until tests were done to ascertain the level of PCBs in the building materials, Keiser said. The question of where to dispose of the demolition debris will remain until the testing has been completed.
As it stands, the Kenai Peninsula Borough has stated that they will not accept demolition waste containing PCBs in any borough landfills. If PCBs are found in the building materials, those materials will need to be sent out of state for disposal, Keiser confirmed.
Council member Caroline Venuti asked if the entire building would have to be shipped out of state if the materials contain PCBs. Keiser answered that should not be the case.
“My understanding is that the materials we’re talking about are things like caulking, paint — particularly paint in the boiler room where temperature control was a factor, because that’s what [PCBs were] used for, to enhance temperature management,” Keiser said. “I think there would be a whole area — stairwells, for example — where you wouldn’t really run into this kind of thing.”
Mayor Kevin Castner asked what the downsides would be to leaving HERC 2 standing where it is.
“You could leave it there,” Keiser said. “But regardless [of] what choice you’re looking at for a new building … you’re talking about a multimillion-dollar, highly visible building on some of the most valuable prominent property in the city of Homer. Why would you want to leave it there in the front yard?”
Illg presented to the council ideas on creating a business plan to facilitate sustainable operation of a new recreation facility, including purchasing management software to capture vital data on patrons’ usage and needs.
“The business plan will help us determine how to best deliver the services and programs, what the staffing requirements would be, and what it actually costs to deliver these programs,” Illg said.
Engebretsen presented the third goal, a right-sized design plan for a new multi-use facility that would include capacity to accommodate existing programs and plan for future programs; spectator options for those who would like to watch instead of or in addition to participating in activities; administrative offices; and storage. In order to accomplish this goal, Engebretsen said they want to gather information from stakeholders, open houses and public comments and report the data and information received from the community.
“Ultimately we want to deliver and meet the community needs for indoor recreation space,” she said.
Regarding capital funding for a new facility, Engebretsen suggested holding a work session later this year, after the city budget is approved for the new fiscal year, to “have some really big conversations about money,” including bonding and capital costs.
The council agreed with the need for a work session dedicated to construction funding and operations and maintenance. Several council members and Mayor Castner also advocated for beginning to set dedicated funds aside now for a new recreation facility, as the city did for the new police station completed in 2020.
Previous reporting on the HERC 2 demolition can be found at https://www.homernews.com/news/herc-testing-fails-at-city-council/. The full recording of the March 20 work session can be found under “Work Session Recording 1” at https://www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/citycouncil/city-council-work-session-1.