WR officials tour possible police site

WARNER ROBINS — City officials were met with concerns about further congesting traffic off Russell Parkway and obligations to build a new law enforcement center atop Perkins Field while touring a vacant grocery store Thursday as another option to house the police department.

Construction and design officials presented the audience with a site plan for the police department to be housed inside the building that formerly housed Foodmax grocery store at 814 Russell Parkway, which has been vacant several years. The council held the meeting there so residents could voice their concerns as the council toured the facility as a whole for the first time.

Renovating the building, instead of building the planned $9.5 million complex atop Jimmy Perkins Memorial Field on Mulberry Street off Watson Boulevard, would save taxpayers about $4 million, officials said.

The plan could also save the city heartache.

Plans to build atop Perkins Field are in limbo as the city seeks federal permission to move the recreation space to another similarly sized — and priced — locale. A $30,000 grant from a Land and Water Conservation fund says the land must be used for outdoor recreation purposes. The city is seeking permission through the U.S. Department of Labor to perform a land swap and put the ball field and adjacent tennis courts elsewhere. It could take anywhere from 90 days to two years to receive the permission.

Renovating the grocery store, says Mark Christianson of International City Builders, could see the police department moved in by the fall.

“We’ve already got the structure,” Christianson said. “We estimate seven months to do it here.”

The Foodmax building itself is just under 46,000 square feet, the size of the initial design for the project. Jim Mehserle of JMA Architecture said his firm was contacted by the city last month to develop a floor plan for the Foodmax building’s shape to see how the needs of the police department would fit inside.

Councilman John Williams said the move was a no-brainer for the local residents and the council.

“This is perfect,” he said. “It’s a no-lose situation. It’s the same (sized) building as the one they’d be building downtown, and it’s in the center of the city. There’d be no mortgage or tax increase.”

Bob Wilbanks, the councilman who spearheaded both votes for the building to be built atop Perkins Field, said the grocery store fell short of expectations and didn’t provide much space to build out when the need arose. He noted there had only been space for a 38-person capacity training room. Mehserle said things could be moved around within the floor plan to provide more training space.

Wilbanks’ bigger concern, he said, was the fact that the meeting was taking place at all.

“We don’t have a majority vote to be here,” he said. “None of the things you’ve seen today have been approved. I don’t think it’s appropriate to see those plans for the first time (as they’re being presented).”

Residents who attended the meeting mostly voiced displeasure with what they felt would increase crime in the area the police department would be leaving, as well as create more traffic hiccups on an already crowded Russell Parkway and nearby Kimberly Road. Some asked officials during a question-and-answer period toward the end of the tour if other sites had been considered. There are others, Mayor Chuck Shaheen said, but the Foodmax building was the most viable and cost-efficient.

“This is just an option,” he told the crowd of about 130 people assembled inside the building. “We’ve got other options ... to save the taxpayers money in this economic time.”

To contact writer Marlon A. Walker, call 256-9685.