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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Heartland center to hold groundbreaking

BY RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

You usually don't hold a ceremonial groundbreaking for a multimillion-dollar government facility until the money to pay for it is locked up.

Tight budgets have a way of getting squeezed tighter.

But on Nov. 16, the city of Wichita, Sedgwick County and the Kansas Army National Guard will get together for a groundbreaking of the Heartland Preparedness Center at I-135 and K-96.

That's the $101 million facility intended to bring law enforcement and military onto one location for training. Officials say it is the nation's first homeland defense center merging city and county public safety and the military.

Officials say they expect the money to be available and that the center will result in savings over time.

During a joint meeting Tuesday at City Hall, the City Council and Sedgwick County Commission received an update on the center that has been talked about since the 1990s and is scheduled to be completed in 2015.

"It has taken a long time to pull the trigger," County Commissioner Tim Norton said, "but this is important. I think it sends a message that we take public safety pretty darn seriously."

Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell said it will improve efficiency between agencies.

"It will provide a better response during crisis in this community," he said. "Any time we can have a collaboration at this level we're better off."

The center had clear support from the council members and commissioners.

The city and county have already split $3.86 million to spend on infrastructure at the site.

But the council and commission still need to give final approval for $14.77 million that the city and county will each spend as their share to build a new training center for police and sheriff departments. Both government bodies have given preliminary approval in their long-range budgets.

Chris Chronis, the county's chief financial officer, said he expects to sell bonds to cover the county's $14.77 million in 2013.

"But between now and then, there are a lot of approvals that have to be obtained," he said.

Kelly Carpenter, the city's finance director, took the same position.

"It's in the (capital improvement budget)," she said. "Just not at the level talked about (at Tuesday's meeting). That doesn't mean it will or won't be approved."

By far the largest chunk of money for the center is the nearly $68 million the federal government is supposed to put up for the Kansas Army National Guard — $42.8 million for the training facility and $24.9 million for the maintenance shop.

Gen. Tod Bunting, Kansas adjutant general, said the money is already in the federal budget for the 2011 fiscal year and has been for several years.

But the 2011 federal budget hasn't been approved, even though the fiscal year began Oct. 1.

"The only way for us not to get the money is if they decide not to do anything, anywhere in the federal government this year," Bunting said. "They're not going to do that."

The cost would jump another $6 million if the Kansas Highway Patrol receives funding approval from the Legislature to join the partnership. The patrol wants to combine two separate headquarters — one serving Wichita and the other the 13 counties in south-central Kansas — at the center.

The Highway Patrol has two facilities in the Wichita area with a combined space of 5,550 square feet. The new facility would have about 20,000 square feet.

Col. Terry Maple, highway patrol superintendent, said it makes "good business sense" to combine offices at Heartland.

The cost of the project has grown over the years. In 2003, it was estimated at $35 million.

Facility needed

Everyone at Tuesday's meeting agreed there was a need for the training center, which is to have a computer lab, a 300-seat auditorium, a mock jail cell, a weapon simulator, a gymnasium and a 911 training room.

"The time for first responders to meet each other is not at 2:30 in the morning in the basement of city hall," Norton said.

He experienced that firsthand as Haysville's mayor in 1999, when a tornado struck the town.

"You have to be able to hit the ground running," he said.

That can happen if the agencies involved in crisis situations train together at one site, officials said.

"What you do in training is what you do in reality," Sedgwick County Sheriff Robert Hinshaw said. "So if we train for this stuff together and know each other, then when the reality hits, we're going to work more efficiently together."

Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said, "It's better to build relationships early on than wait until a crisis. Once you get in a crisis mode, it's awful hard to communicate clearly, to understand different terminology, understand different protocol.

"If you do those things prior to the crisis, it allows you to focus on the emergency."

Outdated building

Wichita police and county sheriff departments saw the benefits of collaboration 25 years ago, when they began sharing a training facility. In 1985, they began using the former Michner Elementary School at 2235 W. 37th St. North.

But Hinshaw and Williams said their departments badly need the new Heartland training center.

They said the current facility has deteriorated and has plumbing and electrical problems. Plus, it isn't equipped to handle today's technology and is too small.

Hinshaw and Williams said they had to send many of their deputies and officers off-site for continuing education because the 50-year-old building wasn't adequate.

"It's imperative that we're able to get a new law enforcement center built for this community," Hinshaw said. "By having (Heartland), we would be able to bring in top-notch training."

That would result in a two-way economic benefit, keeping officers here and drawing other agencies for training sessions.

"When we get people to come here, they'd be staying in our hotels," Hinshaw said.

City Council member Sue Schlapp said, "This isn't just about spending. There will be cost savings. This is a fabulous project."

Collaboration key

The National Guard has three armories and a maintenance shop in Wichita. With the new center, the armory at 602 N. Edgemoor would move to the new center.

The armory at 3535 W. Douglas would be closed and the one at 3617 S. Seneca would remain open, Bunting said.

The Guard's new training center would be 120,000 square feet. The new maintenance shop would be 62,000 square feet — at least three times the size of the one on McLean.

The maintenance shop would also be used to support other agencies in a time of crisis, Bunting said.

"We're envisioning the day that you will seldom see one state enterprise in a facility," he said. "Collaboration is the key."

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