OCEAN CITY — Somewhat sticker-shocked over the estimated price tag, resort officials this week sent the designs for replacing the existing fire station at 74th Street with a new facility at 65th Street back to the drawing board.
Last April, the Mayor and Council voted to eventually replace the aging and dilapidated Station 3 firehouse at 74th Street with a new facility in the parking lot of the Public Safety Building at 65th Street. The midtown Station 3 firehouse was built in 1969 and expanded in 1987. In the decades since, it has fallen into disrepair and no longer meets the needs of the fire department.
In recent years, there have been discussions about simply replacing the existing firehouse at 74th Street, but the lot size is too small to meet the growing needs of the department. Attention then turned to the vast and often-underutilized parking lot in front the Public Safety Building at 65th Street.
After considerable debate, the Mayor and Council in April voted unanimously to approve the plan to build the new station at 65th Street. Around $479,000 was approved for the design and engineering of the new station and a design consultant was hired. The estimated cost of the new station at 65th Street at the time was around $5.5 million. There was a possibility the cost could be offset by the sale of existing station and property at 74th Street, estimated at around $1.5 million.
In the months since, Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) officials, along with City Engineer Terry McGean and the consultant, have been working on the design of the new state-of-the-art fire station at 65th Street. On Tuesday, McGean and OCFD Chief Richie Bowers presented the design and a new cost estimate, which surprisingly came in at around $12.7 million, or considerably higher than the original estimate of $5.5 million. The sale of the existing station at 74th Street could reduce the price tag for the new station by $1.5 million, or down to about $11.2 million, but the Mayor and Council were clearly taken aback by the dramatic increase.
Discussions about the design and its soaring price tag were somewhat pertinent because the Mayor and Council were set to approve a $28 million-plus bond sale later on Tuesday, which included the estimated $12.7 million for the new fire station at 65th Street. For his part, Bowers said time was of the essence to move forward with plans for the new 65th Street station.
“Currently, Station 3 is functionally obsolete,” he said. “We’re fortunate to be able to operate out of it. The time has come to build a new Station 3 firehouse. Moving it to 65th Street is the right operational move.”
Bowers said on the good news front, the state of Maryland has agreed to allow the new station to front Coastal Highway, which should improve efficiency and response times. Originally, the state wanted the new station to front 65th Street, which could have complicated quick responses.
“We’re at a crossroads,” he said. “One of the big bonuses that has occurred is we won’t have to access via 65th Street. The state has embraced fronting the new station on Coastal Highway and has also embraced allowing us control of the traffic signals. That’s huge. That will impact our response times.”
When questioned about the extensive amount of space on the second-floor of the designed new station, which includes conference room, training areas, offices and other amenities, Bowers said those spaces were critical for training.
“We’re going to utilize a lot of the space for training,” he said. “That’s absolutely critical for response times. The kitchen is also very important. All of the troubles in the fire service are solved around the kitchen table.”
McGean acknowledged the new $12.7 million estimate was considerably higher than the original $5.5 million, but said the estimate includes everything, down to furniture, fixtures and even toilet paper, for example.
“That’s the total cost of the building,” he said. “That total includes everything specific to the firehouse. It includes fixtures and furniture, computers, everything. We are not going to come back asking for more.”
McGean said the design is estimated to account for everything needed for the new fire station and includes contingency funding for anything unexpected that comes up during the construction process.
“It’s conservative,” he said. “We don’t want to come back here and ask you for another $1 million. We’d rather come back and tell you we saved $1 million that you can put toward Baltimore Avenue.”
McGean was referring to the major streetscape project for Baltimore Avenue, which is estimated to cost between $15 million and $20 million when all is said and done. Design and engineering funding for Baltimore Avenue is also included in the bond sale approved later on Tuesday.
Nonetheless, the Mayor and Council were surprised by the proposed $12.7 million price tag for the new station.
“We discussed a $5.5 million project in April,” said Council President Matt James. “Now, we’re at $12.7. That’s my concern.”
McGean said the inflated cost estimate was largely related to the added amenities on the second floor of the proposed new station.
“The cost is really related to the size of the second floor,” he said. “Do you want to proceed with this design? Do you want to make changes? The bond you’re about to review covers the entire cost.”
Councilman Peter Buas said he believed all along the new 65th Street station would mirror the relatively new fire station at Montego Bay uptown.
“It’s two-and-a-half times larger than the Montego Bay station,” he said. “If 15th Street is the headquarters, why don’t we just duplicate the Montego Bay station design and size?”
Bowers said because the new station is centrally-located, the training space included is critical to the department’s overall operations.
“The training space is absolutely dire,” he said. “The midtown location makes much more sense from an operational standpoint.”
Mayor Rick Meehan asked if including training areas and conference rooms and administrative officer at the new station signaled an eventual move away from the 15th Street station as headquarters.
“I support rebuilding Station 3 and I support this location,” he said. “Are you moving headquarters from 15th Street? I’d like to know the answer to that.”
Bowers said there is no immediate intent to move headquarters to the new station, but some administrative elements could be moved from 15th Street.
“Some of the administrative functions can be moved now,” he said. “We can look in the future to see what can be better moved to the central midtown station.”
Meehan said the plans revealed potential opportunities at cost reductions.
“I see a large training room and a large conference room,” he said. “Couldn’t they be one and the same? We like to look at value engineering. I’m looking at ways to maximize the space while maintaining functionality. I’d like to get it to the point it doesn’t take away any of the department’s needs, but I would like to revisit some of those second-floor area uses.”
Bowers, however, said the plan as presented represented all of the department’s needs and did not represent an over-design for wants or nice-to-haves.
“What you have in front of you is what is needed,” he said. “This is a collaborative effort involving the career division, the volunteers, the union. We all sat down and determined this is what we need.”
For his part, McGean said some of the design features could be revisited to lower the estimated cost, but said completely tearing up the presented plan could result in higher costs.
“Absolutely, there are things we can do to bring this cost down,” he said. “If you don’t feel like this is a reasonable number, what would like us to shoot for? Can we get back down near $6 million? Not without blowing this plan up and starting over. I think we can knock $1 million or $2 million off it.”
Councilman Mark Paddack also said he was somewhat stunned by the increased cost estimate.
“I was led to believe it would $5.5 million,” he said. “I understand wants and needs. The town spent a lot of money on 15th Street and a lot of that is providing service for West Ocean City. Now, I’m told this is what we need. It’s two-and-a-half times larger than the existing Station 3.”
Meehan said what was presented on Tuesday was starkly different than what was approved in April.
“It’s changed dramatically,” he said. “These are major changes. We have a responsibility to build what we need. This is the first time we have seen the changes in scope of this magnitude.”
After considerable debate, the Mayor and Council directed Bowers and his staff, McGean and the consultant to go back to the drawing board and find ways to whittle down the cost. The elected officials did agree to keep the new fire station funding in the upcoming bond sale, with the caveat any excess funding would be directed to the Baltimore Avenue project.