Having doubled its inventory in six years, the Homer Fire Station was running out of space in 1980.
“Even when all the pumpers, tankers and trucks had nice homes, there would not be any room for other important activities: fixing the equipment, drying the hoses, training the volunteers,” Fire Chief Phil Morris said of the crowded conditions in a Homer News story, March 20, 1980.
As a result, a $450,000 project added a recreation room, four bedrooms, a 50-person meeting room and a kitchen.
The addition’s biggest selling point was that “this station will not have to be added to, regardless of Homer’s growth. This will be the main station in Homer for 30 years,” said Morris.
Thirty-four years later, a similar situation has developed.
“It’s a wonderful building. We’ve just outgrown it,” said current Fire Chief Bob Painter.
Work areas are cramped. The back side of drive-through bays are blocked by shelves filled with supplies. Standard-sized equipment has been redesigned to fit available space. Garage doors must be left open to vent diesel exhaust. Trapped water has caused walls to rot.
There’s a similar story over at the Homer Police Station.
When that station was built in 1978, it was constructed on a cement slab. As a result, drainage from the hillside above the station causes flooding inside the station. Police Chief Mark Robl has been told raising the two-story building is the only way to correct the situation, a project too costly to undertake.
Visitors enter through officers’ work area. Poor design lends itself to escape attempts, several of which are tried each year. Moving prisoners requires moving them through officers’ work areas. Storage takes up office space, every available nook and cranny and even requires two outside vans. Increased technology needs have created a cobweb of exposed wires and cables. It is not uncommon to have more prisoners than there are cells.
“For our use, I don’t think (the building) can be used in any way,” said Robl.
A Public Safety Building Review Committee, formed to explore solutions for the fire and police stations problems, recently had a space needs assessment done by Loren Berry Architect and USKH, now Stantec. It was presented to the public Wednesday in the first of three public meetings.
The assessment offers two options: a one-story combined facility requiring a 4.66-acre site and a two-story combined facility needing 4.31 acres.
Katie Koester, the city’s economic development director, reported to the city council in September 2013 that a staff committee had analyzed several downtown areas as possible sites for a new public safety building:
• Cook Inlet Region Inc. lots by Petro Express;
• A lot owned by the Waddell family on the corner of Sterling Highway and Main Street and another occupied by log cabins behind the Homer Post Office;
• Four Town Center sites, including one on Main Street, one near Pioneer Avenue, one near Hazel Avenue and one behind the Homer Cleaning Center;
• The site of the HERC, Homer Education and Recreation Complex.
With its Pioneer Avenue-Sterling Highway location and access to utilities, the HERC was the favored site.
“It’s a pro, it’s developed land,” Koester said at the time. “There’s not going to be a lot of permitting issues.”
While permitting isn’t an issue, the possible loss of the HERC gym, which continues to be used for recreation purposes, is a concern to proponents of a community rec site.
The 4.303-acre, city-owned HERC site was donated by Homer residents to the territorial school, The Parent Teacher Association of Homer and to the Territory of Alaska in the 1940s and 1950s and transferred to the borough in 1974. The two buildings on it are former schools.
The smaller one now provides office space for city maintenance workers. The larger structure, once the Homer Intermediate (Middle) School but renamed the HERC, has had multiple uses. The second floor was once offices and classrooms for the Kachemak Bay Campus, Kenai Peninsula College-University of Alaska Anchorage and during renovation of City Hall, the second floor provided temporary office space. The ground floor and gym were once the clubhouse of Homer Boys and Girls Club. The gym continues to be used for community recreation.
In July 1998, the Homer City Council approved Resolution 98-63, supporting the borough’s conveyance of the site to the city of Homer, “to allow public use of the gym and associated rest room facilities of the former Homer Intermediate School.” Two months later, Kenai Peninsula Borough Ordinance 98-42, turned the land and buildings over to the city for the price of $1.
The ordinance stated, “There is a large demand from the public for use of the gym at the former Homer Intermediate (Middle) School and the city of Homer is the appropriate entity to properly manage the facility for community purposes as the city has park and recreation powers while the borough presently lacks such powers inside the Homer city limits.”
The ordinance included the restriction “that the site shall be owned in perpetuity by the city of Homer or its successor and be managed for the use and benefit of the general public.” In July 2000, the site was quitclaimed to the city of Homer with the restriction noted on the deed.
In 2002, an evaluation of the building by Klauder and Company Architects of Kenai identified numerous building code violations It was deemed noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ventilation and exhaust systems appeared inadequate. Emergency egress lighting systems were questioned. Exit signs needed upgrades. Energy inefficiency was pointed out. Increased snow load
requirements highlighted necessary structural improvements. A hazardous materials study was needed. Cost to bring the building up to code was estimated at more than $8 million.
“In conclusion, it is too early for us to make a final recommendation but we believe this project is worthy of a more detailed study, if funding is available for renovation projects,” said Peter Klauder, president and principal architect of Klauder and Company Architects.
Last year, as interest in a new public safety building focused on the HERC site, those using the gym expressed support for its continued use. Two back-to-back city resolutions illustrate the heightened concerns.
Resolution 13-096 sponsored by Barbara Howard requested the borough assembly amend the quitclaim deed to allow the city to sell the HERC site. The resolution stated that the “city council has concluded that it is in the best interest of the community to demolish the buildings and use the site for the proposed new public safety building.” Having the option to sell the property would expand the city’s options “in the event that it is determined the site is not suitable for a public safety building,” according to the resolution.
Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship confirmed the resolution was received and distributed to the assembly and borough administration. However, Bill Smith, who represents Homer on the borough assembly, said he was unaware of the resolution.
“I would have been happy to carry it forward. It’s kind of interesting that I didn’t hear about it,” said Smith.
The second resolution, 13-095, sponsored by David Lewis, authorized the city manager to keep the HERC gym open for community recreation programs that required “minimal heat and utilities until such time as the building is demolished.”
Kathy Hill, who plays pickleball in the HERC gym and won a gold medal in mixed double competition during the Alaska International Senior Games in Fairbanks last year, has repeatedly testified at city council meetings supporting continued use of the HERC gym “because we don’t have another facility to move into or in the offing. It’ll be years before money is ever available for a recreation center.”
“I’d be OK with the (rest of the) building coming down as long as the gym’s left,” she said.
While Hill believes her concerns have been heard, she also believes “steps have been made by the city council to take over the HERC site for the public safety building. I feel they’re not respecting (borough) Resolution 98-42 that says this property is to be set aside for community use. I realize safety is a community use, but the city established that site with the HERC acronym for education and recreation.”
When Homer Mayor Beth Wythe sponsored a resolution in August identifying a town center site “as a viable location for a community center,” Hill was puzzled.
“When the city was asked several months ago why the safety building wasn’t going to be put in the (town center) site, the response was the infrastructure needs for that area were too great. Utilities, roads, all that. It was too expensive. And yet they can pass it on to recreation?” asked Hill.
Ken Castner, chairman of the Public Safety Building Review Committee, also was critical of the mayor’s resolution.
“(Wythe) didn’t go out and gather any support for this. She just said, ‘We’re going to give you a location. It’s too expensive for a public safety building, but it’s right up your alley,’” said Castner.
For Wythe, also a member of the Public Safety Building Review Committee, the resolution was a good-faith expression.
“I want to work on a community center and try to figure out a way to make this work,” said Wythe. “On the city’s budget I just don’t know how that’s going to happen. … Until we sort all that out, it’s kind of hard.”
Castner had asked the city when, if ever, the HERC site was officially identified as the site of the new public safety building. In City Manager Walt Wrede’s report to the council earlier this week, he said although there were numerous memorandums and project descriptions that mention it as a preferred site, there is no resolution specifying the HERC site as the preferred site for a new public safety building.
Kate Crowley is the head organizer of “ReCreate Rec,” a group formed to address the growing recreational, wellness and extracurricular needs of southern Kenai Peninsula residents.
With indoor recreational activities held in the HERC gym and local schools, the group also seeks to establish and fund an indoor recreation and community center.
The city’s 2014 operating budget included $35,000 for a Park, Arts, Recreation and Culture Needs Assessment and Crowley is helping with that effort. The assessment, which includes a public survey began the end of August and is expected to be completed next spring.
“ReCreate Rec, the needs assessment and the whole question about the HERC are all inter-related,” said Crowley, urging public involvement in the needs assessment process and the public safety building project. “Should the HERC site be where the public safety building is going to be? If you agree or disagree, you better speak up now. The timing is important.”
In addition to Wednesday’s public presentation of the public safety building space needs assessment, two additional public meetings are planned, with dates to be announced at a later date:
• In October: site selection criteria and preliminary design concept;
• In November: refined design concept and site selection.