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Delays over, Seminole center to open

After many problems and long delays, the largest project in the city's 31-year history will open its doors on Oct. 6.

By MAUREEN BYRNE

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 23, 2001


After many problems and long delays, the largest project in the city's 31-year history will open its doors on Oct. 6.

SEMINOLE -- City officials and residents eagerly await the Oct. 6 grand opening of a new recreation center, complete with gymnasium, weight room, racquetball courts, meeting rooms, game room, auditorium, and arts and crafts studio.

Better late than never, some say. The $6.1-million project, the largest in the city's 31-year history, is opening months behind the original schedule.

"We didn't have time to get impatient," said recreation director Jim Sheets, who until last month offered classes from portable classrooms in the parking lot. "We just had to move forward. We had programs to run."

Deadlines have come and gone over the past year. The contractor, Irwin Contracting, is facing penalty fees of up to $1,000 per day, according to City Manager Frank Edmunds.

Muck in the ground, an asbestos inspection and a shortage of supplies and workers have contributed to the delay, said Edmunds, who oversaw the project for the city.

"I don't think anyone involved with this project realized the magnitude of it," he said.

John Bowden, director of operations for Irwin Contracting, agrees.

"It's a fairly difficult project . . . tying one new building with an old building," he said. "We've had to do a fair amount of fast thinking on our feet."

The original recreation center, a former church and school, was built in 1977. It was in poor condition, with its musty smell, chipped paint and dirty exterior.

The goal: Build an addition, renovate the existing center and blend the two buildings into one facility.

That turned out to be tougher than anticipated, Bowden said. But he is proud of the result. Walk into the center's sunlit atrium, he said, and it's hard to imagine the facility was once two separate buildings.

Original predictions were that the addition, or Phase One, would be complete in the fall of 2000. But before workers could begin the project in March 2000, they encountered an obstacle that stalled construction: a large amount of muck that had to be removed from the soil.

When fall came, the addition was nowhere near complete. A new deadline was given. The project would be finished in January. It wasn't.

And it wasn't done in time for a May deadline either. When a July deadline passed, the city imposed a $1,000 fine per day on the contractor until the following month.

Edmunds said he had two choices to make when the project started running behind schedule: spend more money to get it done faster or allow more time and keep it within budget. He chose the latter.

"There was no urgency to open the facility," he said.

The remodeling of the existing building, or the second phase of construction, didn't meet its deadline either. City officials said earlier the entire 57,000-square-foot complex would be ready by May of this year.

They extended the deadline to Sept. 1, but when that deadline wasn't met, they fined the company $1,000 per day until Wednesday, when the renovation was substantially complete.

But even with all the missed deadlines, unexpected circumstances and frustrating situations, a cooperative effort survived among all three parties involved in the project: the city, contractor and architect.

"Yes, (Edmunds) demands a certain level of quality and performance, but not anything that we shouldn't be striving to get him," Bowden said.

Edmunds admits to being a perfectionist as far as the project is concerned.

Even to the point of delaying its opening?

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I have adhered to the specifications of the project and have accepted nothing less. The end result is to the benefit of the public. They will get a first-class recreation center for the enjoyment of the entire community."

Ron Regner, a 67-year-old retiree who has lived in Seminole since 1971, is curious about what the center will offer seniors. But as far as the delay is concerned, "most projects take longer than they're supposed to, whether they're municipal or private," he said.

This week, workers will make final touches to the building and move in furniture, such as chairs and tables for the adult room and pool tables for the teen room. Machines already fill the weight room.

Other features at the recreation complex at 9100 113th St. include athletic fields, two outdoor basketball courts, a playground, music and dance studios and a concession area.

Construction on a Junior Olympic-size pool and a smaller children's pool will start in two to three months, Edmunds said.

In 1999, voters in Seminole approved borrowing money to finance the project. The money will be paid off, over 10 or more years, using money from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. No property tax money is pledged to the project.

Rather than raze the existing building and start from scratch, the city decided taxpayers would get more bang for their buck if it renovated the back half of the center and built an addition.

"Would (the city) rather have had the project done some months ago?" Bowden asked. "Sure, but there have been some difficulties. But the building, (not the delay), is what will be remembered."

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