New home urged for extension office
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
INVERNESS -- On any given day, residents come in asking about their drooping azaleas or a recipe for homemade mayonnaise. After picking up a pamphlet or chatting with one of the experts, they know if they need a pesticide or an egg-beater.
If you're looking for practical advice from local government, the Extension Services office on U.S. 41 S, next to the Citrus County Fairgrounds, is the place to find it.
The University of Florida agents helped more than 18,000 people last year, from farmers to 4-Hers, housewives to cattlemen.
Problem is, the extension agents have long outgrown their cramped quarters.
Community Services Director Brad Thorpe, whose office oversees Extension Services, is recommending the county build a 11,500-square-foot office for the agents at the Lecanto Government Complex.
If the County Commission supports the concept at a workshop Tuesday, Extension Services would be latest in a string of county offices to relocate to Lecanto.
The proposed one-story building would go on the wooded lot at the entrance to the government complex at 3600 W Sovereign Path. The estimated costs range from $600,000 to $800,000, only slightly more expensive than expanding and remodeling the existing office, Thorpe said.
The agents would get more space, a modern facility and a central location, but with a tradeoff: They would exchange their longtime, prominent home along the highway for a less visible corner in Lecanto.
"People know us here. This is on a busy road," said Extension Services Director Mary Sue Kennington, noting that the U.S. 41 office draws frequent walk-ins. "People come in and see us."
But Kennington said Lecanto has other perks. Most of the growth is in the county's central region, so a Lecanto location might make better sense over the long run, she said.
"On the positive side," Thorpe added, "you're a little closer to the center of the county, so people from Crystal River or Homosassa will find it easier to come here."
Being next door to the main government offices will also make administrative tasks, such as department meetings, more convenient, Kennington said.
"That's one pro in a list of pros and cons for any location," she said.
And it has been part of the logic behind the recent decisions to consolidate other county offices at Lecanto.
When Thorpe took the Community Services director post in January, he moved his office from the Central Ridge Library to the Lecanto Government Building. He said the move has helped him stay "in contact with the rest of the department directors on a daily basis."
The Public Safety Department, which includes fire services and hazardous materials offices, left the Kensington Fire Station in January for a second-floor office in Lecanto.
"I think it's worked well," Public Safety Director Charles Poliseno said. "We're here in a county building where we do a lot of our business with other departments and divisions, and that part has been very helpful to us."
The Parks and Recreation Division followed suit, leaving its scenic but isolated office at Fort Island Trail Park for a spot at the old Lecanto government complex. Now the parks office is adjacent to the public works and facilities maintainance offices that help build and groom the county's parks.
"You're right here when you need things. I have a shorter ride to the (County Commission) board meetings, which saves me a lot of time," said parks director Rafael Del Valle. "You're centrally located, so you can go either way. "If you ask me about the view, that's another story," Del Valle said with a chuckle.
There has been another drawback: Del Valle said he has seen walk-ins drop off since leaving the Fort Island office.
"That was the area we most benefitted from," Del Valle said. "We were on site at the park, and people would come in and ask questions."
Thorpe acknowledged that is a "potential negative" of moving to Lecanto, but there are ways to address that if Extension Services makes the move.
Prominent signs, advertising and word of mouth would help people find the new location, he said. The county could even keep a small office on U.S. 41 with someone who could refer visitors to the Lecanto office, he said.
The county's five-year construction plans originally called for expanding and remodeling the existing 4,000-square-foot Extension Services office, which agents have used for more than 20 years. The plan earmarked $246,500 this year and $255,313 in next year's budget for the project, Thorpe said.
But Kennington said the needed 4,000-square-foot addition will not fit on the existing office site. Thorpe also said it would be difficult to move the agents for six months while their existing offices are renovated.
The plans for a new building in Lecanto would include offices for extension agents and environmental health officials, storage space for the health department and a 2,000-square-foot classroom with a demonstration kitchen, Thorpe said. If commissioners support the idea, he said, the building could be designed and built next year.
"It would be a change for the people in Inverness," Thorpe said, "but for the people that use it from other parts of the county, it would be centrally located."
-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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