City Hall project may pick up speed

Lower building costs and a possible solution to a utility easement could end the delays.

By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA, Times Correspondent
Published September 23, 2007

City officials appear poised to accelerate plans to build a new $3-million City Hall.

Six years ago, talk first started about building a new City Hall.

Two years ago the Belleair Beach City Council borrowed $3-million to build it.

Soaring construction costs forced a delay while architectural plans were downsized.

Further complicating the project was the recent discovery of an easement that runs under a portion of the proposed new building on the southwest side of the Belleair Causeway.

On the positive side, the slowdown in the real estate and construction markets are putting downward pressure on building costs.

A special building committee, headed by council member Ron Baldwin, will meet Friday at 4 p.m. to discuss possibly hiring a project manager to move the project more quickly to a construction decision.

Last week, Baldwin told the council the proposed building site is bisected by an easement owned by Verizon. If an agreement cannot be reached with the utility to change the location of the easement, the council may have to completely reconfigure the new building site.

"It didn't show up on any survey," Baldwin said. "This has stuck us in the mud a little bit."

In addition, a building containing Verizon switching equipment is virtually in the middle of the city's property, also complicating siting of the new City Hall.

Baldwin said he anticipates Verizon will be willing to negotiate moving the easement.

Several council members were obviously frustrated by the continuing delays affecting the City Hall project.

"We've been messing around with this too long," said Mayor Lynn Rives. "This is actually a good time in the construction market for us to do it."

Last year, rising construction costs forced the city to delay construction while its architect, Ward Friszolowski, redesigned the building to reduce both its size and cost.

Originally projected to cost $2.8-million, the building, if left unchanged, could cost well over $4-million, Friszolowski said at the time.

When the city subsequently disbanded its Police Department, the size and cost of the new building were further reduced.

Then came the building and construction industry slowdown, further putting downward pressure on anticipated costs.

Baldwin, a commercial builder, was assigned last spring to oversee planning for the new City Hall.

He and his building committee have cut construction costs by more than $1-million to well below the originally budgeted $3-million - by taking advantage of the elimination of the Police Department and by moving the proposed site but still on city property.

Baldwin also proposes rebuilding the city tennis courts in their current location and moving public works department operations to a city-owned house adjacent to the present City Hall site.

Construction, once it begins, will take about a year to complete.

Meanwhile, the city continues to operate in a nearly 50-year-old building that leaks when it rains, is riddled with termite damage, and does not meet requirements for the disabled - and the $3-million the city borrowed from SunTrust Bank for its new City Hall remains unspent.