Officials tour the site and evaluate it as a possible new home for the Renaissance Center.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published September 5, 2003
LECANTO - School Board members and guests toured the former Heritage Hospital building Thursday and got a good look at the building's sky-lit atriums, fully equipped kitchen and cafeteria, swimming pool and scores of rooms that could be converted into classroom space.
The board was sizing up the building, most recently used by the Brown Schools, as a possible site for the Renaissance Center, which is the school system's program for disruptive and disinterested middle and high school students. The current Renaissance campus is a series of portable units at Montgomery Avenue and Highland Boulevard in Inverness.
Initial reports from the district staff have been cautious: Officials have said the cost difference between building a new school and buying and renovating the hospital site would be small.
But Joe Krim, a representative of the hospital's owner, said his contracting firm recently examined a similar hospital in Ocala that was built by the same builder, Garrison Construction. Marion County schools strongly considered that building, a former Charter Springs hospital, as the new location for its expanding alternative school.
Krim said his firm estimated that converting that hospital, which is of similar configuration and construction as the Citrus building - but which was in worse shape and needed up-to-date inspections - would have cost Marion schools between $500,000 and $600,000 and would have taken six to eight months to complete.
Krim said Heritage's small rooms, designed for patients and offices, can be easily converted to classroom space. The load-bearing walls of the structure are on the outside, leaving much flexibility for renovation inside, he told the board members.
The School Board has a contract to buy a 22-acre parcel in Lecanto beside the Citrus County jail. But building a new Renaissance Center there has been a controversial proposition. Neighbors have complained about the safety of the students because the site is so close to the jail, the Cypress Creek Academy and the adjacent Withlacoochee State Forest, which is used by hunters.
The board has been divided on the issue, with some members changing their minds. All willing to consider the former Heritage building.
The idea came to the board from Ansel Briggs, who is also a candidate for school superintendent. Briggs has argued that the purchase price for the hospital, which is $4.5-million, is still better than the $5.546-million it would cost to buy the Lecanto land and then build and equip a school there.
The former Heritage building, off County Road 491 north of County Road 486, has some added benefits, Briggs has argued: 10,000 square feet of extra space and at least eight additional acres; and a gymnasium and pool, amenities not planned for the new Renaissance Center now.
The hospital was built in 1989 and opened as a psychiatric hospital in 1990. The Brown Schools moved in after the hospital closed, but Brown ceased operations last year.
Board member Lou Miele, who has waivered on his support for the school site near the jail because of the safety concerns, shook his head as he looked at yet another small room at the end of a hallway. The space throughout the facility was odd, he said.
At the back of the facility, in a hallway between the gymnasium and the pool, a reporter asked Renaissance Center principal David Cook if the pool was an attractive idea. "An attractive nuisance, I think they call it," Cook said. "I'm not sure I'd ever want to supervise that."
As the tour drew to a close, board members and others tossed their last questions at the officials assembled. Pat Deutschman, who has some interest in the idea, questioned how a deal could be worked out so that the school district could get the facility for a good price but in the right shape to move a school right in.
Real estate agent Kevin Cunningham, a former board member himself, represents the seller. He suggested the board negotiate a deal with the owner so it could agree on a purchase price with the renovations already done.
Krim said that would be no problem. His firm develops commercial property and is already familiar with the construction type and needs of an alternative school from their experience in Marion County.
School Board Chairwoman Sandra "Sam" Himmel said the board would likely discuss the option at an upcoming board meeting or workshop. The next regular meeting is 4 p.m. Tuesday in Inverness at the District Services Center.