Largo United Soccer and the city are at odds over building change

LARGO — The building itself is not much to look at — a small structure along Belcher Road decorated with two white silhouettes of soccer players set against a black backdrop.

But to officials with the city of Largo and to members of Largo United Soccer Club, whose red, white and black logo sits between the silhouettes, the roughly 2,400-square-foot building has been the source of a frustrating yearlong struggle.

The building, which the soccer club uses for meetings and as shelter from inclement weather, has sat dormant and condemned since last summer as the two sides have debated how much work it needs and how to pay for it. It's a drawn-out process that is either the fault of a private group that took a few liberties with city property or a city bureaucracy with some communication problems. Or both, depending on whom you ask.

The City Commission has offered a solution: a $20,000 city loan to the soccer club so it can cover the cost of the $30,360 renovation project. The commission is split 4-3 on the loan, though, which goes for a final vote next week. The dissenting votes — Commissioners Harriet Crozier, Mary Gray Black and Curtis Holmes — blame both the city and the soccer club for the situation while questioning the need to spend $20,000, even as a loan, during tight budgetary times.

"I love to have the kids in sports programs. Nowadays, they spend too much time with Nintendo," Holmes said during last week's commission meeting. "But spending money this way right now, to me, is not prudent."

The problems started in the summer of 2009, when soccer club leaders decided they wanted to do some remodeling on the city-owned building but neglected to get city approval. They took down a dividing wall that separated the club's meeting space from a storage area, doubling their meeting space.

The dividing wall was a haphazard construction of drywall and chicken wire that didn't connect to the floor (and thus buckled whenever anyone leaned on it) but still managed to have active electrical outlets, causing some in the club to question its safety.

"My concern was the safety of the kids," said Al Sousa, executive director of Largo United Soccer, which has about 450 players ages 3 to 17. "I thought it was going to be a very simple task."

And it was, at first. The job took a few weeks and cost about $2,500. But a year later, city staffers responding to a complaint that the air conditioner wasn't working well discovered the reason. The area that the wall unit was supposed to cool had doubled, unbeknownst to the city.

The soccer club's remodeling job had unintentionally changed the building's primary use, according to city building officials. Instead of storage, it was now assembly, which has stricter requirements for fire safety. More work was needed.

"I accept full responsibility for that mistake," Sousa said of not getting city approval. "I accept no responsibility at all for the delay. … This should never have taken as long as it did, and I personally hold the city responsible."

City departments disagreed on what the building needed, according to architect Barry Ullmann, requiring five drafts of designs over 10 months. It was an inordinate amount of work, he said, for a project that would take barely a month.

"It seemed hard to figure out who was running the show, who was taking orders from whom," Ullmann said.

Facilities manager Glenn Harwood admits there were some communication miscues but said the soccer club was not without fault. According to Harwood, the city nailed down a scope for the project by November, with an estimated cost of $30,417, but gave the club the option to try to find a better price.

A four-month search ended with a $30,360 bid, $57 less than the starting point. Sousa and soccer club board member Tim Johnson dispute that timetable.

If the City Commission gives final approval Tuesday, the club will use $15,500 it has contributed to a city trust fund for athletic facility maintenance and improvements for the project and will repay the $20,000 loan from the city over five years.

The contractor actually started work on the building in May because there was a miscommunication between city staffers and the soccer club about whether work could begin before the commission approved the deal.

This was just one of many things about the process that annoyed the commissioners who voted against the loan.

"What it boils down to is a communication failure," Public Works director Brian Usher told the commission June 7. Usher promised that a "system of checks and balances" was going in place to prevent similar problems in the future.

"We are no more happy about this than you are," Usher said. "This has been a learning experience for all of us."

Reach Will Hobson at whobson@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Largo United Soccer and the city are at odds over building change 06/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 6:11pm]

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