Warner Robins cuts ribbon on long-awaited LEC project

chwright@macon.comApril 30, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- After years in the making, the police department will move into its new location over the next two weeks, Police Chief Brett Evans said at Tuesday’s ribbon cutting for the new law enforcement center.

“We come to the building knowing that we’re about to serve,” Evans said during comments at the ceremony. “We come with a servant mind-set and a servant heart.”

Hundreds of city, county and public safety leaders packed into the building’s new roll call room for a half-hour ceremony, followed by the symbolic ribbon snipping that declared the nearly $10 million project complete. It’s a project that has taken years to finish in the face of budget and location battles

“It is easy to forget the enormity of this task,” said Gary Lee, Redevelopment Agency executive director.

“We began with one of the most blighted areas in the city and ended up with a magnificent building.”

Starts and stops

The new law enforcement center began as an idea about a decade ago. The police department had outgrown its original police station on South Young Avenue, behind City Hall. A leaky roof and ventilation problems plagued the officers.

“The building was so old that any kind of retrofitting or anything in order to keep up with technology was just almost not cost effective,” Evans said. “The minor stuff was that you couldn’t plug in the heater on one side and a computer on the other side because everything would blow.”

In 2005, a new law enforcement center was proposed as one of the projects to be included in the 2006 special purpose local option sales tax. The city requested $6 million, but $5 million ultimately was approved in the March 2006 referendum voters overwhelmingly supported.

Between then and 2012, the project went through several starts and stops as council debated its project leaders, final budget and location.

The location was the most contentious topic facing Mayor Chuck Shaheen in his first year at the helm of the city.

A predetermined spot at Jimmy Perkins Memorial Field, next to City Hall, was voted down because it required moving the field elsewhere. After a failed attempt to convince council to renovate an old Food Maxx building on Russell Parkway, council eventually settled on the current location at Watson Boulevard and First Street, which was renamed Armed Forces Boulevard last year.

“It’s right in the entrance of our largest industrial employer in the state,” Lee said Tuesday. “And I think it cleaned up an entire blighted area. We were able to do it in one swoop.”

After the location was settled came a changing of the guard. Council members voted in March 2011 to remove themselves from the Redevelopment Agency board -- which oversaw the project -- and appoint Warner Robins residents.

Finally came the budget debate. By all accounts, the 2006 SPLOST money would only start the project. But how much more was needed depended on the party talking. Former Mayor Donald Walker thought the price tag would be close to $10 million. So did Councilman Mike Daley.

But a month after taking over, the new RDA board set a $7.5 million budget. Shaheen endorsed the decision.

“It could cost more in the long run,” Daley said at the time.

The project moved along quickly after the new RDA board took over. The last of 12 land parcels was acquired. A Thrifty Car Rental business located on property for the new facility was moved. A final design was approved. Bonds were acquired. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in June 2011.

In November 2011, voters approved an additional $4.45 million in the 2012 SPLOST, bringing the sales tax revenue offerings to $9.45 million. The RDA board and council took out bonds ahead of the 2012 SPLOST to finish funding the project.

As of March 11, the final cost of the project was $9.78 million. Interest totaling $115,000 earned from the 2006 SPLOST also was used for the project, and City Council transferred $275,000 for furnishings.

According to Lee and RDA board members, they were under the $7.5 million construction budget. It only cost $7.1 million to build the facility. The rest of the money went to designs approved in years past, land acquisitions, furnishings and equipment.

Lee said the final cost of the project should be ready for the next RDA board meeting May 13. He said some last minute finishing touches may have dipped into the $59,000 that was to return to city coffers.

Finally done

Still, the journey has been worth the reward, said just about all parties involved in the project.

“Through all the process and all the headaches, this is when you get to say, ‘Thank you God. I think it was worth it,’ ” Evans said after thanking the city officials who worked on the project over the years.

And though many hands have touched the project, it was Lee who was honored Tuesday with his signature fashion statement: the bow tie. As a tribute to the man on whose shoulders the project ultimately fell, the mayor, city attorney, RDA board chairman and head of the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce wore the bow ties Lee is known for around the county.

In weeks leading up to the ribbon cutting, Lee had proudly arranged for law enforcement officers, countywide leaders and city employees to tour the new law enforcement center.

“It’s a great building,” said Tommy Stalnaker, Houston County commission chairman. “They’ll be able to enjoy it for years to come.”

Evans said the building has a new forensics lab that has taken years to arrange. The 42,000-square-foot, two-story building also has a gym for officers, a closed sally port to bring in inmates, a fully-equipped roll call room that will double as a training room and an oversized city seal displayed on the floor of the entrance.

Shaheen said he and council will need to decide what to do with the old building. There’s a newer portion and older portion, he said. The older portion likely will need to be torn down, and the newer section could become administrative offices.

Standing in front of the project that has been the background of his term, the mayor said it’s an accomplishment for everyone in Warner Robins.

“We wanted to honor (police officers) with a better work environment, but we also wanted to honor our citizens for voting for a SPLOST. So we wanted to build a functional, cost effective, on budget, on time building,” Shaheen said.

To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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