Two and a half years after planning began, the Assembly voted Tuesday night (4-14-15) to put the Harrigan Centennial Hall renewal project out to bid.
The renovation will expand the building’s meeting and convention spaces, revamp the Sitka Historical Museum and create a new, second entrance on the waterfront. Plans call for energy efficient heat pumps and all new A/V systems.
And assembly members went out of their way to remind Sitkans that the project is being paid for entirely with outside grants — not with city money.
(You can find a presentation from the architects, McCool Carlson Green, here)
Just before the vote on whether to put the long-awaited project out to bid, Sitka resident Matt Donohoe stepped up to the mic with an unexpected question.
“It’s not too late to back out of this project is it?” Donohoe asked.
Donohoe pointed to the example of Kettleson Memorial Library, just next door. Bids for the library renovation came in about a million dollars over budget, and then design flaws briefly brought the project to a halt this winter. He said he worries the project will cost more than expected.
“I just couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t take this last opportunity to ask if there’s any way we could back out on this sucker,” Donohoe said.
And, despite years of design and engineering work and countless public meetings on everything from display cases to landscaping, the answer is: yes. The city could still back out, said Assembly Member Michelle Putz.
“Yes, we could back out of this. We absolutely could,” she said. “It would be sad, though, because we would lose out on a lot of state grant funding that is not going to be going to Sitka if we back out of it. It would just go away.”
This was a point that Assembly members made over and over again: the entire $16.3-million project is funded by state grants. And the vast majority of that money comes from taxes on cruise ship passengers, which means it comes with strings attached: it can only be used for projects that “enhance the visitor experience.”
” It can’t go towards reducing our electric rate,” Putz said. “It can’t go towards helping lower income folks.”
Assembly members also pointed out that the city’s operating costs are expected to drop after the renovation. The new building is projected to cost about half as much to heat and light, despite the larger footprint.
But, asked member Steven Eisenbeisz, what would happen if bids come in too high?
“That’s my concern with this project,” Eisenbeisz said. “I love it for the $16.3-million. Let’s do it. But if we get over that, we’re already looking at trying to find quite a bit of money in next year’s budget cycle.”
Public Works Director Michael Harmon said the city can always reduce the scope of the project.
“There is always risk there. That potential is there, that we come back, and we’re over budget. It happens all the time. I’m not going to beat around the bush with that,” Harmon said. “[But] there’s ways of dealing with that, and getting it back in line with the budget. It’s going to be our choice…It’s not a victim situation, where we have to take it by any means.”
Harmon pointed out that no matter what, the building is fifty years old, and needs serious work whether or not the city goes ahead with the renovation.
“I strongly advise that we move forward and take care of this infrastructure burden while we have the opportunity with these cruise ship dollars,” he said.
That verdict was echoed by Sitka resident – and former city administrator – John Stein.
“Thank you, Assembly, for the work session this afternoon, where you showed us what a fabulous project this will be,” Stein said. He called it “one of the best, most universally used buildings in the City.”
And “at 50 years old,” Stein said, “ it deserves a makeover.”
You can find more information about the Harrigan Centennial Hall Renewal Project at their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/HarriganCentennialHall.
The Assembly also approved, on first reading, a proposal to conduct the 2015 and 2016 municipal elections entirely by mail.
Since the city’s usual polling place, at Harrigan Centennial Hall, will be under construction, Assembly members argued it would be a good time to see if voting by mail-in ballots increases turnout.