By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
Members of the new Citizens Academy got a course Tuesday evening on city history, the branches of city government and the city finances. But the highlight of the class was the field trip.
They wedged their way into cramped offices, squeezed through maze-like areas, and marveled at tangles of wires and mountains of boxes in the City Administration Building.
Many in the Citizens Academy, made up of city commission members and local media, had heard stories about the city building, but few had seen the conditions in person. So the question naturally came up – is the city still talking about a new administration building?
The answer was an emphatic “yes.”
The city building, at 304 N. Church St., started its life more than a century ago as a school. It then was turned into a library, and in 1976 became the city administration building. The result is a 17,000 square foot building with cramped offices, maze-like spaces and cobbled together technology.
But after years of discussion, the solution, it seems, may be right next door.
Earlier this year, city officials announced that property at 140 S. Grove St. would be donated to the Wood County Senior Center for a new facility. The property was previously the setting of the school administration building. The new site would allow for a much larger senior center and for a building actually constructed for that purpose, instead of the retrofitted post office that had been used as a senior center for years.
The move from 305 N. Main St. to South Grove Street would not only benefit local seniors, but it would also free up the current space used as the senior center – which is right next to the city administration building. And that means the city would then have an entire stretch between North Main Street and North Church Street for a more spacious and modern city administration building.
“We haven’t done any in depth study of the space and what a building would look like there,” said Assistant Municipal Administrator Joe Fawcett. But at a cursory glance, the expanded space would work.
“There’s a significant footprint we can work with,” Fawcett said. “There’s certainly enough room.”
The location would also satisfy the desire held by Mayor Dick Edwards and others to keep the city building in the downtown.
The current senior center has its share of building issues. It was built in 1913 and used as a post office until the 1970s. It’s gone through many renovations for use as a senior center, but it may pose as many challenges as the city building. Retrofitting the site for ADA standards is challenging, the elevator is a maintenance nightmare, the chiller is a six-figure item needing replacement, and façade and roofing problems are looming.
The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. But as long as no federal funds are used on the site, the city can do with it as it wishes.
The city building also has a long list of deficiencies, which staff can easily recite.
The council chambers is small, with the fire code allowing a maximum of 66 people. That means several times a year, citizens attending meetings have to stand in the hallway since the room is overflowing. The restrooms are cramped and just barely pass muster for handicapped accessibility.
Some office floors slope so much that wheeled chairs roll across the surface. Power access is less than ideal, so masses of cords are plugged into inconvenient locations. The old construction is not energy efficient, with the south side sweltering in the afternoon sun while the north side of the building is freezing.
The technology department is a maze of rooms, with one of the smallest housing the brains of the building – servers with information on email, telephones, utilities, finances, taxes and police data. Storage space is in great demand, with boxes and files filling any vacant space, behind doors, on floors, and stacked high on shelves.
But Fawcett said that after hoping for a new building for years, the city can wait the three to five years expected for the new senior center to be constructed.
“The city isn’t pushing them out,” he said. “We will be respectful of the timeline they are under.”