SPRING HILL — For Mark Barry, the devastating back-to-back hurricanes that ripped through Hernando County in 2004 were more than a scare. They were a wake-up call.
Barry's concerns over the winds from Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which caused widespread power outages, downed trees and flooded roads, weren't limited to himself and his family. He feared for the men and women living in the four special-needs group homes operated by Arc Nature Coast.
As executive director of the nonprofit agency, it was up to Barry to come up with a plan to make sure the needs of the developmentally disabled residents were met. He scrambled to secure enough resources to endure the storm, calling on Arc employees, who dutifully set aside their own home responsibilities to drive hazardous streets to deliver food and provisions and provide relief to weary caretakers.
Though he and his staff managed to survive the close call, the ordeal convinced Barry of the urgency to come up with a better answer to serving the region's developmentally disabled residents in such times, one that would take into consideration their unique needs.
Six years later, that answer has begun to rise on a parcel of land on Partridge Street, just off of Mariner Boulevard, in Spring Hill. Scheduled for completion by next May, the 8,500-square-foot structure will serve a dual role as an education facility and regional evacuation shelter, which from Barry's perspective ultimately defines Arc's mission in the community.
"It's something this area has needed for so long," Barry said. "When you consider the number of customers we serve, it's somewhat amazing to think that we're only now getting this done."
By day, the center will serve as Arc's West Hernando headquarters and the new location of the agency's Community Cafe, a training facility where computer skills, art and fitness will be taught to clients. In addition, the agency plans to host events such as dances and dinners.
The agency will keep its administrative offices on Neff Lake Road, east of Brooksville, and will continue to offer some services at that facility.
With its heavily reinforced steel and concrete walls and roof, the new Spring Hill structure will be a veritable fortress, capable of withstanding Category 4 hurricane winds. The self-contained facility will be equipped with emergency backup power, a commercial-size kitchen and can be stocked with enough water and food to comfortably sustain up to 300 people for at least three days.
While the county operates a special needs shelter during emergencies, its aim is more toward serving those with medical needs, said Hernando County Emergency Management director Cecilia Patella. The Arc shelter will fulfill a need that Emergency Management isn't equipped to meet.
"In a general-population shelter with a lot of people inside, you can't control things like noise and confinement, which can be very stressful to some individuals," Patella said. "The Arc shelter will provide a much more hospitable environment, especially if it's an emergency that's taking place over the course of a few days. It's going to be a valuable asset to the community."
As Arc's most ambitious project ever, the edifice will become the centerpiece of the 38-year-old agency's presence in the community, says Barry. At least some of the support the agency has received over the years, he said, can be measured by the generous financial gifts and donations made by individuals and businesses toward the new building.
"Communities support an agency like ours because they value the work that it does," said Barry, who has served as the agency's director since 1992. "We knew going in that it would take a lot of help to get this off the ground. We were lucky in that a lot of the right people went to bat for us."
Getting funding for the $1.9 million facility took determination and more than a little luck. Barry's hope was to be able to build the center without having to borrow money. Doing so in a tough economy wasn't easy.
A $1.1 million legislative allocation secured in 2008 by state Sen. Mike Fasano managed to escape the veto pen of Gov. Charlie Crist. A few months later, the agency got more good news when the county offered to donate 6.3 acres on which to build the facility.
Built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification, the building's many green features will significantly reduce overall operating costs. Additionally, Arc got another cost break when Hernando contractor Gregory Jarque offered to oversee construction of the facility at no charge to the agency.
"We've been pretty fortunate all around," Barry said. "To be able to undertake a project like this in the present economy was something that worried me. We're not an agency with entitlements. Everything we get comes by way of the community's goodwill."
The immediate challenge ahead for Arc is raising the final $300,000 needed to complete the project. Linda Hamilton, director of the capital campaign launched by Arc earlier this year, said about $200,000 has been raised so far, mostly through the sale of commemorative patio bricks and naming rights to various features of the new building and grounds. As building has progressed, she's seen more interest from potential donors.
"When people come out to visit the site, they see how important this is going to be to our community," Hamilton said. "In the end, what we're offering is the opportunity to be part of something very special."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.