CLEARWATER — Elected officials are having some serious sticker shock at the unexpectedly high price of Clearwater's long-planned new downtown fire station.
During years of discussion about the new station, its cost had been tabbed at $7 million, then $8 million. Now the City Council is being told it'll be $13.3 million.
"That's a staggering price," said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson. "I'm just stunned by how much this costs."
Council members are scheduled to vote Thursday night on whether to sign a contract with a local construction firm to build a replacement for Fire Station 45. Like the current downtown station, the new building would serve as the Clearwater Fire Department's headquarters.
The new station is envisioned as a three-story, 33,000-square-foot structure built to withstand Category 5 hurricane winds. It would be a LEED-certified "green" building, energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
It would be built on a vacant, city-owned lot on the north side of Court Street at Madison Avenue, just east of S Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
It would be 10,000 square feet larger than the current downtown station at Franklin Street and Garden Avenue, located next door to Clearwater's police headquarters. That fire station was built in 1974, and the city says it's outdated and too small.
Money to build the new station would come mostly from Penny for Pinellas sales taxes.
But that's only if the City Council can get over the $5 million price hike. Building a $13 million fire station would take a big chunk of the city's Penny funds, which would essentially mean that some other city construction project wouldn't get built.
At a work session Monday, council members questioned Fire Chief Robert Weiss about the proposed station's cost, which would be nearly $300 per square foot.
Weiss said the costs were reasonable compared to similar modern fire stations. He said Station 45 is Clearwater's biggest station and its fire headquarters, so it houses trucks and equipment and offices that other stations don't.
The new station would have four vehicle bays and a decontamination room on the first floor, firefighter living quarters on the second floor, and administrative and fire prevention offices on the third floor.
"We've tried everything we can to make this as affordable as we could," the fire chief said. "Sooner or later, you have to have all the functions that are currently in the station that we have downtown."
Tara Kivett, an engineering project manager for the city, added that the costs of construction material and labor are going up.
Still, Mayor George Cretekos was floored by the station's projected cost.
"All of a sudden, we're up to $13 million," he said. "That scares me."
He's worried that future construction projects will come in over budget as well.
The fire chief said that if the city didn't build a new station, it would have to fix up the current downtown station, which he described as "dank and dark." It has a leaky roof and other problems. "Our existing station is in dire need of upgrading," the chief said.
If the council signs the contract Thursday night, Biltmore Construction of Belleair would build the new station. Construction would take a year. The city has no plans for the property where the current station is located.
Clearwater has already used Penny for Pinellas sales taxes to upgrade four of its eight fire stations. After the downtown station is replaced, the final three stations are supposed to be renovated by 2020.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.