At their regular meeting on Sept. 27 Swansboro commissioners continued their look into providing an emergency operations center capable of keeping town staff safe in the event of a major hurricane.
Following Hurricane Florence in 2018, Swansboro learned that the town’s Public Safety Facility was not capable of protecting the town’s critical staff, police, fire and administration, in a storm event that was higher than a Category 1 hurricane.
Russell Pearlman of the Wooten Company, the town’s engineering firm, provided a very detailed look at what it would take to refit the existing Public Safety Facility to bring it up to code – capable of withstanding a Category 3 hurricane.
“It would meet the wind load expected in your area,” Pearlman said of the retrofit.
The message he brought is that he believed retrofitting the building would cost just as much – about $6 million – as buying property and constructing a new building that would be twice as large. Pearlman even brought along a design for the 22,000-square-foot building that he said could serve the town’s emergency services needs through 2050.
“If we look at the cost,” Pearlman said. “It’s better to start from scratch if you want to meet the building code as it currently stands.”
But, while Pearlman provided these two options, Commissioner Frank Tursi questioned why other options have not be offered.
“My understanding is this is supposed to be an analysis of the alternatives,” Tursi said.
Other alternatives would be sharing EOC space with Onslow County or creating a regional facility that would include nearby Cedar Point and perhaps other local governments.
Currently, the town is planning to use a remote site – Building 2 of the Swansboro United Methodist Church – in the event of a major weather event. So that is another alternative. An investigation after the meeting by Commissioner Laurent Meilleur turned up other possibilities, including a nearby facility. (See related article.)
Tursi made it clear that he was not interested in coming to a conclusion until all avenues are explored.
Meilleur questioned the need for Pearlman’s work and presentation – which apparently cost about $14,000 – in light of a similar study presented a year ago.
“You are reaffirming … that the current building is not suitable for a rebuild,” Meilleur said to Pearlman.
Pearlman said while that was true, his report went into greater detail than the earlier study.
Chris Seaberg, town manager, provided more details on the difference.
“One of the things the previous engineer was not privy to was the foundation,” Seaberg said. “The information on that was not readily available.”
Pearlman then discussed with the panel the proposed design for the new building.
He said the 21,900-square-foot building could be built on property in the area of N.C. 24 and Swansboro-Belgrade Road. It would be double the size of the current building, which is 10,900 square feet.
Tursi, who referred to the proposed building as a “Taj Mahal,” pointed out that the area is outside of town limits and at an extreme end.
Mayor John Davis asked Pearlman if the building could be built in phases.
“It could be done,” Pearlman replied, but it would be most economical for certain aspects of the construction to completed in their entirety, he added.
Commissioner Larry Philpott said he would prefer a location closer to the center of town in order to maximize response time.
He also said that in addition to the cost of construction, the town could expect a significant increase in the cost of upkeep and maintenance with a new building.
Commissioner Pat Turner said that due to the cost of the project, she would not want to even consider it without allowing the taxpayers of the town to weigh in.
“I … want to stress what I said before, we are a small town … I don’t see us spending this kind of money,” she said. She suggested the question be put to a vote in a referendum.
For his part, Tursi urged the board to consider other alternatives, sharing with the county or a regional facility.
“If the board thinks those are two alternatives that could be considered, now is the time before it gets too far down the road,” he said.
Davis said he did not think the county option would work.
“Everything I’ve heard from the county is they don’t have the room,” he said.
“I don’t know that officially,” Tursi said.
While not offering an official report from the county, Seaberg said that in a response prior to COVID, the county indicated it could not accommodate the town personnel.
Tursi was not put off.
“We need to have a serious discussion before we commit ourselves,” he said.
Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy at tidelandnews.com.
For more on this story purchase a copy of the Oct. 27, 2021, Tideland News.