There's some upbeat news for the long-awaited Heartland Preparedness Center.
Not only is dirt being moved for the facility, but the military part of the construction is being done for nearly half the $68 million originally estimated — without scaling back the project.
Construction could start Oct. 31 on the Kansas National Guard Armory, followed in late November by a maintenance shop. Both projects are slated to be completed in March 2013.
If all the pieces fall into place as expected, the center would be the nation's first homeland defense center merging city and county public safety and the military, officials said. The Kansas Highway Patrol is also trying to join the partnership.
The poor economy mostly drove down costs of the National Guard piece of the project. But it's too early to determine if Wichita and Sedgwick County could see similar savings.
Both elected bodies still must give final approval to fund a combined police and sheriff training facility at the center at I-135 and K-96. They have been supportive of the joint project — projected to cost each $14.8 million — in the past.
County commission chairman Dave Unruh, was encouraged by the possibility of a reduction.
"Any time something costs less, we appreciate that," he said.
The city and county have already split $3.86 million to pay for the site's infrastructure, which has been completed.
A long time coming
The preparedness center has been talked about since the 1990s and is scheduled to be completed in 2015. An official groundbreaking was held nearly a year ago, months before federal money was finalized.
Officials say the center is needed to replace a cramped and outdated former school building used to train city and county law enforcement. They say it would also enhance communication between agencies in the event of a disaster.
Federal money will pay for the two Kansas National Guard buildings. The total of the approved bids is $34.2 million, well below the $68 million planners expected when the project was put together two years ago.
The slashed figure is largely because a poor economy has driven down construction costs, said Mark Fairbanks, project manager for Topeka's HTK Architects, which designed the National Guard buildings.
"We also estimated a little high because we were so far out two years ago," Fairbanks said. The project is the same as it was when the estimated cost was $68 million, he added.
As it stands now, the center's overall cost would drop from $101 million to about $67.8 million.
For $22.8 million, Shawnee's Straub Construction won the bid to build the Guard's 119,000-square foot armory and do the dirt work for both buildings. Wichita's Law Co. will get $11.4 million for constructing the 57,000-square foot for a maintenance shop.
The Straub contract was finalized last month; Law's deal still needs National Guard and state approval.
Dirt work began last month, a little later than expected because Congress was slow in finalizing its approval, said Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General.
Depending on the speed of the dirt work, Straub is expected to start constructing the armory Oct. 31 and Law would begin its building in late November.
The center's maintenance shop will combine the ones the Guard has in Wichita at 1201 S. McLean and in Hutchinson.
The Guard also plans to combine some of its three armories in Wichita, closing the one at 3535 W. Douglas and moving troops and equipment from 602 N. Edgemoor to the center. It's unclear what would happen to the Edgemoor property. The armory at 3617 S. Seneca would remain open.
Better space needed
Wichita police officers and county sheriff deputies have been training in a shared facility — former Michener Elementary School on 37th Street North — since 1985. But officials say it's too small, has plumbing and electrical problems and isn't equipped to handle today's technology.
The proposed training facility for both departments would have a computer lab, classrooms, 300-seat auditorium, mock jail, gymnasium and 911 training room. It would also serve as a 911 backup facility.
Improved space would mean the departments wouldn't have to send officers and deputies to other places for training, although some of that would still be necessary in some specialty areas, Deputy Police Chief Nelson Mosley said.
"By bringing instructors in here, we're looking at cost savings," Mosley said. He said he's in the process of determining how much that would be.
"The trainers could train our instructors, who could then train our people and branch out to other agencies," Mosley said. "We'd get more bang for our buck."
Other law enforcement agencies would be able to join in the training, resulting in shared costs of bringing in instructors. Those visitors would also mean local income for hotels and restaurants, Mosley added.
City, county budgets
The first step toward approval for the $14.8 million is to put it in the capital improvement budgets of the county and city. The county already has done that.
The city is expected to present its long-term budget, including funds for the training center, to the council before the end of the year, said Mark Manning, the city's budget officer.
Those budgets, however, are just for planning purposes — not a commitment — and include hundreds of projects. The projects have to be brought individually before the council and commission for specific funding approval.
Pete Meitzner and Michael O'Donnell, in their first year on the City Council, said they support the joint training facility in theory but want more details before committing their vote.
"But at first glance, I think this is going to be a fantastic opportunity for us to have that here in Wichita," O'Donnell said. "In my opinion, we waste so much money on pet projects when there are actually community projects out there that need to be done."
Jim Skelton, who served on the city council for nearly six years before being elected earlier this year to the county commission, said he would continue to support funding the training center.
Richard Ranzau, is in his first year on the county commission, said his first question is whether the police and sheriff departments need a new shared facility.
"And if we do, what are the alternatives?" he said. "There has to be cheaper alternatives.
"Right now, we're using a school. We're training them well."
He said the former school could be upgraded for far less than $30 million. Or, "we need to look at different buildings or schools that are empty."
County officials haven't indicated when they would bring funding of the center before the commission. Manning said the city council would probably take a look at it next spring, if it is approved for the long-range budget.
Bids could drive down the final cost, as the National Guard discovered. How much is unknown. The $14.8 million is based on preliminary designs for the 77,000-square foot center.
"We're shooting for under that," said Jeff Myers, the training center's project manager for the city.
He said he's finding that actual construction costs for projects are averaging 75 percent less than they were budgeted for five years ago.
If the training center is approved, officials expect to start the design process next year, then put it out for bids and start construction in 2013. It's scheduled for completion in 2015.
Before the Highway Patrol can put a headquarters at the center, it needs funding from the Legislature. Its request for $6 million during the last legislative session was denied.
The patrol will request $4.5 million for the session starting in January after scaling back its proposed facility at the center by 4,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet, Lt. Col. Alan Stoecklein said.
The patrol serves Wichita and 13 counties in south-central Kansas with two headquarters with a combined space of 5,550 square feet. It has been trying to get a new headquarters for more than 20 years, Stoecklein said.
"We've grown over the years and just don't have any room," Stoecklein said.