By Naomi Klouda
The Homer City Council decided Monday night the best place for the new combined police and fire station is the site of the middle school formerly used by the Boys and Girls Club.
The council approved a measure that deposits any future sale of the current fire and police sites toward paying for the new public safety facility. Another measure introduced Monday would authorize spending $300,000 from police and fire budgets to design and engineering work for the new structure. That measure goes to a vote at the Sept. 23 meeting.
“We identified the HERC building as the main site, with the Town Center as second choice and will pursue the HERC as a chosen site,” Mayor Beth Wythe said. The timing on making a decision is linked to the legislative process for gaining funding in the upcoming fiscal year.
Katie Koester, the city’s coordinator of economic development, is compiling the Capital Improvement List that needs to be put before the governor soon. Mayor Wythe said gaining a new public safety building is No. 2 on the CIP list and the city is serious about moving forward on it.
Since the city has achieved goals of harbor improvements and the fire station at Skyline Drive, this moves up the opportunity for getting legislative attention on a new combined public safety building, Koester said. It’s been on CIP lists dating back to 2000.
The 4.3 acres on the corner of Sterling Bypass and Pioneer currently holds two 1950s era buildings once owned by the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The borough turned the land and buildings over to the City of Homer for $10 in 1998.
Along with that gift came issues – a faulty boiler that guzzled fuel, cost for a replacement boiler and a large city subsidy on maintenance. In return, the building gave back little lease value. Council member Barbara Howard has likened the city separating itself from the building to “divorcing” itself from a budget item that drains $250,000 from city resources each year.
The council’s decision came after Koester gave a presentation in Monday’s work session. Together with Police Chief Mark Robl, Fire Chief Bob Painter and Planner Julie Engebretsen, they had toured five possible sites last week to assess the potential problems and advantages with each one.
The Homer Educational and Recreational Center, or the HERC, held advantages over all other sites, most of which need infrastructure of roads and utilities.
The council is anticipating public outcry about the loss of facilities for the city recreation program. The Boys and Girls Club moved out last spring and is seeking a school location to resume. Councilman Beau Burgess suggested that since the city owns the fire department building, perhaps it could be made over as a Community Recreation Center. He also wants to see discussions about applying for Kenai Peninsula Borough Service Board money as a funding source for recreation needs.
“I realize the concern in community for recreation space. But the reality (of the HERC) is a loss of income for the city – we could justify it when the Boys and Girls Club was in there and we could support it,” Burgess said. “They left. What we need to focus on now is, as a community, to have a larger discussion about creating a viable funding source for a recreational program.”
For a public safety structure that would provide for fire, police, training and the jail, the HERC site seems more ideal than other locations, the council decided. It provides direct and easy access to the main roads. There is plenty of room there, and it’s already developed land. In her presentation to the council, Koester said the points against that site are that its location sits in the midst of a busy area, heavy in traffic and no stop light controls. Chief Painter is concerned the distance from the Homer Spit may cause the ISO fire rating to increase for Spit structures, Koester said.
“They also questioned whether it, (the land) is too valuable for a public building. Could it be sold or used for an important commercial driver? This is a question to consider,” Koester said told the council.
During a previous building cost study, an estimate for demolition costs were prohibitive, up to $800,000. But the most recent demolition projection came in at $450,000.
“The number is lower than any of us anticipated and it’s for both buildings,” City Manager Walt Wrede said. Of the total, $250,000 is for asbestos removal and the borough may be able to contribute to cost for removing it.
Another pro with the HERC that wasn’t there for the other sites are the two entrance-exit roads: One for emergency vehicles and one for the public to come and go.
The other top choice by public safety and planning officials was the site called the Main Street site near the Town Center. The Homer Cleaning Center building, up for sale, likely would be involved along with nearby land the city owns.
“Its pros were that a civic building would develop a town center in that area. It would clean up the area and provide access off Main Street,” Koester said. It, too, is accessible to primary roads.
But there is the added expense of acquiring the laundromat lot and demolition costs and perhaps remediation issues with dry cleaning chemicals.
“The demolition of that building would be involved. The laundromat hasn’t been in operation for a while, but rentals upstairs are in use,” Koester said.
A second category, called Tier two sites, were also analyzed. These were identified as the Pioneer Site of Town Center just behind Alice’s Champagne Palace. The third is called the City TC site of the Town Center, also involving the Homer Cleaning Center and CIRI land for access. A final area is called the Hazel Site, which would push traffic onto Grubstake, Hazel or Poopdeck.
All these sites held various problems: the need for new roads, problems with interrupting small neighborhood roads and greater expense putting in utilities.
Not a few council members lamented future loss of the HERC building’s gym. Councilman David Lewis asked if they could keep the HERC gym while building on.
“It has a good hardwood floor. The only other school in town that has a good wood floor is the Homer Middle School,” Lewis said. “They are expensive to build.”
Burgess suggested subdividing the HERC lot and building something else there later on.
Mayor Beth Wythe said the old school’s gym features have been a high priority for local groups. “I was asking if we could take those features and do a remodel of the fire hall,” Wythe said.
Even though the council made the decision to move forward on the HERC building, they asked that certain questions be answered. Councilmember Francie Roberts asked Koester to look into the ISO fire rating for that site.
“Also, it’s a 4.5 acre lot. Do we need that many acres? Could we use half of that? I like the idea of using the old buildings to turn into the recreation center,” she said.
Burgess also requested that the city look at both of the top sites at the same time and talk to the landowners in the Town Center area.
Since a lot of design and feasibility work was already completed on the Town Center area several years ago when it was considered for a voter referendum on a new city hall-community center, the mayor wants the city to take those plans out and look at them again.
“That’s work that doesn’t need to be redone,” she said.
Since the council is moving forward on phase one of the project, with land valued at $4.8 million and money to allocate, it demonstrates a level of preparation that hopefully can gain legislative attention, Wythe said.
Most of the testimony to the council, filling the chambers on Monday night, came from members of the Pickle Ball recreationists who currently use the HERC building. They advocated against being displaced and urged the council to let them use the gym until the building is to be demolished.
City Manager Walt Wrede said he didn’t see a problem with that. A proposal will be put before the council at the next meeting to authorize that, at the mayor’s suggestion.
One person, Corbin Arno, raised other questions.
“Do we want a police and fire station next to our school? Are you trying to jam this through to get the money to do it?” he asked. “Visitors don’t want to drive into town and see the police and fire station right there. It’s not a good location. You need to take a little more time on this.”
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