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County to install senior center sprinklers

The $270,000 project might help the Senior Activity Center attract events and boost its revenue.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- Pinellas County plans to spend $270,000 during the next two years to add fire sprinklers to the Palm Harbor Senior Activity Center so that the center can host large events that would bring in needed revenue.

Sprinklers were in the original building plans, but County Administrator Fred Marquis said the initial cost estimates for the center came back higher than the state-approved budget for the project. So the private, non-profit organization that oversees the center had to decide whether to build a smaller building or slash some of the building's more expensive features.

"They made a conscious decision not to sprinkler the building," Marquis said. "They thought they could live without them."

But not including the sprinklers meant the center could not host a number of profitable events unless it stationed two Palm Harbor firefighters, or fire watchers, at the door. That's what it has done at events such as Thursday night's Greater Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce spaghetti dinner and trade show.

Renting the center's main hall brings in $500, a tidy sum for a center that is struggling to meet its budget and will seek taxpayer support with a Nov. 7 referendum.

County officials, wishing the best for the senior center's financial health, have agreed to retrofit the building with sprinklers at a total cost of $270,000, said Carl Barron, who oversees the construction and maintenance of all county facilities. That's $35,000 to $40,000 more than it would have cost last year to include sprinklers in the original construction.

The issue was raised by senior center director Irene Rausch, who approached fire officials to ask whether the senior center was permitted to hold certain events.

Palm Harbor Fire Chief Jim Angle said it could not.

Typically, Angle said, a building that can hold more than 300 people -- like the senior center -- is required by state law to have sprinklers. But there is an exception to that requirement if the building is only used for an assembly. He said the exemption was likely written for buildings like churches, where the assembly of people does not add to the fire risk.

But the exemption does not cover events featuring paper displays or other flammable decorations. That means the senior center cannot be host to events such as craft shows, Rausch said.

Rausch, who also serves as a Palm Harbor fire commissioner, then brought her concerns to the fire board.

The fire commissioners agreed to provide two firefighters to the senior center for special events for free until the sprinklers are installed next month. Rausch abstained from the vote.

The fire watchers are on hand to ferret out potential fire hazards, to stamp out small fires or provide direct contact to the fire station should a problem arise, Angle said.

"It's an alternative we frankly don't like, but will do until it's sprinklered," Angle said. "It is a very short-term tool."

The fire department agreed to provide fire watchers for up to 20 hours, Angle said, as a community service.

Barron said installation and the expense of the sprinklers will be spread over two years.

This year, the county plans to spend $100,000 to install sprinklers in the senior center's main assembly room. Next year, another $170,000 will be spent to complete the project, Barron said, which will include sprinklers for the rest of the senior center as well as for the adult day care center next door.

Barron noted that construction of the building came in under budget, saving enough to cover the $100,000 expense of the sprinklers this year.

Barron said the county, which leases the building to the senior center, agreed to pay for the sprinklers because county officials want the center to be able to support itself with whatever activities it can attract.

Should the senior center fail to meet its lease obligations, Barron said, operation of the center would revert to the county.

"I really do not want to be in that business," Barron said. "We want to do everything we can to ensure they're successful."

-- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or at farley@sptimes.com.

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