County Commissioner Dave Sullivan was looking for the right word to describe what it’s taken to, after eight years, get to this morning’s groundbreaking at the latest in a string of hoped-for, planned, rebuilt, vacated, misplaced and built-from-scratch Sheriff’s operations Centers.
“I came up with one word,” Sullivan told a socially-distanced gathering of some 50 people standing on a road by the 8-acre site near Commerce Parkway in Bunnell, just south of the Government Services Building. “Difficult.”
He then traced–not in nearly as much detail–what has been nothing short of the disturbingly clumsy ordeal that since 2013 had the county hunting for a new sheriff’s headquarters so the agency could get out of its cramped facility off Justice Lane, near the jail: the consideration of the old courthouse in Bunnell or building on a site across from the GSB, what even then was considered by many to be the ill-advised acquisition, for $1.23 million, of the disused Memorial Hospital off of State Road 100 and its top-down, $6 million reconstruction into an operations center; employees’ reports of illnesses associated with sick-building syndrome; the county’s clumsy and at times dismissive response, which eventually cost County Administrator Craig Coffey his job; the evacuation from the building less than three years after it opened; the sheriff’s nomadic set-up since at the courthouse and elsewhere; this commission’s timid acquiescence in the purchase of yet another bad building with designs to temporarily house the sheriff there–the embarrassing purchase and sale, at a big loss, of the Sears building; the county’s supposed decision, on County Administrator Jerry Cameron’s watch, to build a new, $12 to $15 million operations center on vast acreage it owns near the library in Palm Coast–a decision that proved to be little more than a scheme to fence in the property and rid it of a homeless camp–and finally, after endless delays, the decision, fingers crossed and recrossed, to settle on the acreage in Bunnell again and greenlight the design and imminent construction.
“We’ve come through an extremely difficult process,” Sullivan said, obviously downplaying the successive commissions’ errors, missteps, hubris and colossal waste of money along the way–his own commission included–money taxpayers will be paying for many years even before accounting for the cost of the new building. Two sheriffs have been mostly bystanders to it all since their agency’s facilities are at the mercy of county decisions and county-funded construction or rent payments. Sheriff’s roles are advisory only.
“In the end, looking at the possibilities, this particular piece of land became available because we had already purchased it in hopes of building what will be across the street now, a southern library,” Sullivan said, referring to what, for years, has been a windmill tilting in the county’s winds.
“Despite of all that here we are today, and it’s a great day, because we’ve come through an extremely difficult process, it’s very difficult for the sheriff to operate that way, and now is the time to sit back and say: great, we’ve made the decision. But it’s still not the end. I call it the old victory at sea. It’s the beginning of the end.” There was scattered laughter in the audience, at least a third of which sheriff’s personnel, recent history being still raw. “But it’s a very significant beginning of the end, because here we are, and within about a year and a half or so, we’ll be reopening this up.” That is, perhaps by June 2022, four years–the equivalent of a sheriff’s entire term–after evacuation. Sullivan called it “a great day for Flagler County” as a drone buzzed with the sound of a thousand mosquitoes above the scene.
Calling the groundbreaking “a monumental step,” Sheriff Rick Staly then addressed the gathering, paying tribute to agency employees who were impacted by the lack of a building while continuing to bring down the county’s crime rate. He thanked commissioners for their decision “to replace the old and unsafe operations center with a professional building,” a decision he called an investment in the county’s future.
“Finally, I think I speak for my entire team when I say we cannot wait until eviction day comes from the Courthouse and the GSB building and is replaced by move-in day,” the sheriff said.
The plan is for what will now be, with financing, just short of a $23 million, 51,000 square foot building, expandable to 81,000 square feet, not including the cost of a 6,000-square foot, separate building on the same grounds for purchasing and logistics. The costs assume that current estimates for lifting the grounds three feet from what is otherwise wet, boggy ground will be accomplished within budget: the county cannot afford another shoddy project.
The difference this time, as Staly pointed out, is that the architects hired for the project–Orlando-based Architect Design Group–has a track record specializing in designing law enforcement agencies in dozens of states, and has worked closely with the sheriff on the current, two-story design. That was not the case when the county rebuilt the old hospital. The sheriff signaled that there are no intentions to cut corners, especially when apparent savings up front are likely to turn into larger costs down the line.
As late as October 2019, Cameron was saying that the county was not prepared to finance a building costing more than $15 million. “I’m looking at a cost of $300 a square foot and not $325. We anticipate we’ll be able to get it within our budgetary goals,” Cameron said at the time. The cost per square foot for the coming buildings: $368.
The county on Monday approved a $20 million loan with a local bank to finance the project, which will add to the county’s debt and further narrow its maneuvering room for other capital projects–like the southern library. (see “$21 Million Sheriff’s Building Would Be Financed With 15-Year CenterState Bank Loan at 1.83% Interest” and “$21 Million Flagler Sheriff’s Operations Center Unveiled, But Questions About Financing Remain Unanswered.”)
The new project has drawn criticism for its size and cost–going from the small administrative building on Justice Lane in 2015 to the 27,000-square-foot refurbished hospital, and within two years, to a facility nearly twice that size. The sheriff addressed both issues in an interview after the groundbreaking.
“Here’s what happened: it was never done properly when they bought that old hospital,” Staly said. “There was never a space study done based on current needs and growth. It was–we’re going to buy this old building and we’re going to cram the sheriff’s office in there and make it work. So the day they moved in, and I was not sheriff, OK”–Staly had been undersheriff in Jim Manfre’s administration until his resignation in early 2015, six months before the building he’d eventually refer to as “Mold-Ops” opened— “it was filled to capacity the day they moved in. And since I became sheriff, we started remodeling that little separate building, which was about 4,500 square feet, and then of course we had to abandon everything, there was asbestos found in that building and stuff like that. So it was never done right. So I give credit to the county commission, because when we abandoned the building, I asked them to do three things, because if I was going to be a part of this, I wanted it done right, and as the sitting sheriff I feel it’s my responsibility to prepare this agency for the future and for future sheriffs. I’m not going to be here forever. I hope to be here quite a while yet, but at some point I’m going to retire. Hopefully closer to 2030.”
The three elements the county agreed to was conduct a space study, which projected a need for a 65,000 to 81,000-square-foot building by 2030; hire an architect with rich experience in law enforcement designs; and hire an “outside” contractor, a recommendation the county did not quite follow.
“They’re finally doing something I said,” Charlie Ericksen, who just ended two terms on the county commission, said. He was the only commissioner past or present–who attended the groundbreaking–who’d been on the commission in 2013, when it voted to acquire the old hospital building in Bunnell and transform it into a sheriff’s operations center. Ericksen alone had voted against the proposal, considering its execution less than transparent and ill-advised. “I told them not to take the other building six or seven years ago. They’re finally doing the right thing.”
All five current commissioners were present of course. Commission Chairman Donald O’Brien emceed, describing the occasion as “a new chapter in the history of Flagler County.” No one from Palm Coast showed up. Mayor Milissa Holland was not aware of the groundbreaking when asked about it this afternoon, and after checking, said the city administration did not receive invitations to pass along to city council members.
The event drew Bunnell Mayor Mayor Catherine Robinson, Bunnell Commissioner Tonya Gordon and Bunnell City Manager Alvin Jackson, a reflection of the importance of the building’s presence to Bunnell, and Flagler Beach City Police Chief Matt Doughney, who works closely with Staly. Doughney said the centralized location of the future operations center will benefit all local law enforcement–just as the location will make it more proximate to the courthouse, a few minutes away, the county’s Emergency Operations Center and its 911 center, and the county’s fleet maintenance and fuel depot.
To Bunnell officials, it’s expected to be a boon to the economy, though the three years’ presence of the old Operations Center just off State Road 100 did not appear to have had the desired economic impact.
“I appreciate the fact that the county commission made this decision because we always felt it needed to stay in the city of Bunnell, it’s part of who we are,” Robinson said, “it’s part of our identity as the crossroads of Flagler County, and we’re excited about it.” Robinson and her colleagues on the commission had not at all been pleased when, for a time, the plan was to locate the building next to the library in Palm Coast.
“From an economic development standpoint,” Jackson said, “what it does is it expands that, helps our local businesses, restaurants, retail by having the sheriff’s department here, as well as having that law enforcement presence in Bunnell, which helps also.” The operations center is on acreage alongside the future Commerce Parkway, the highway that will bypass Bunnell from State Road 100 to U.S. 1, a plan in discussion for a decade.
When will it happen? “That is the question,” Robinson said.
“I’d say in the next two to three years we should have the Commerce Parkway in,” the ever-optimistic Jackson, who still answers his phone with his trademark “it’s a great day in Bunnell” greeting, “and it really becomes our catalyst for economic development for the city. Then you have the sheriff’s operations center sitting right in the middle of that also.”
Don’t expect construction on the operations center to begin immediately. “I know expectations are high that we’ll begin in about 30 days,” Architect Design Group’s Susan Gantt said. “It’ll take a little bit longer than that.”