- December 13, 2018
Small-town charm, plentiful tree canopies and rich history all are part of what makes the town of Windermere the little oasis it is, nestled among the lakes.
As the years go by, the town continues to maintain its historic roots while adjusting to the growing population surrounding it. However, the new year also marks the beginning of some necessary town improvements.
In 2020, Windermere residents and visitors will see the landscape change slightly as the town begins construction of brand-new administration, public works and police facilities.
Assessment of the current town facilities and talks of necessary improvements have been underway for years now. In August 2014, discussion ramped up regarding whether the existing buildings would be refurbished or torn down and rebuilt.
At that time, the Town Council approved hiring two firms to create a long-term master facilities plan. After it was decided that demolition and reconstruction were the better options, the town went to residents in 2016 to ask for approval on a loan to build such facilities. Voters rejected that by a margin of just 42 votes.
“We went through the first referendum … and the comments back from (the residents) were, ‘Hey, listen, we know you need new facilities, we just need to know more about what you want to do before we’re going to buy into this,’” said Town Manager Robert Smith. “We amended our game plan to say, ‘OK, if this is what they want then we’ll move forward with moving into a conceptual design phase so they know what it’s going to look like, where it’s going to be, what it’s going to feel like and, more realistically, what it’s going to cost.”
Fast forward to March 2019, when voters approved allowing the town to borrow up to $5.2 million for the new Windermere Municipal Complex. In December, the Town Council approved the loan. Now, it’s full steam ahead to bringing a project years in the making to life.
At 104 years old now, the existing town office complex never was meant to serve in the capacity that it has been. The buildings were constructed as a schoolhouse in 1916, and in 2000, the schoolhouse was converted to town offices.
The complex includes four buildings: one for the town administration, clerk and finance department; another housing the public works supervisor office and storage; a third with commercial rent space; and the fourth serving as the police department, connected to the Elizabeth Parsons School of Dance. The public works storage yard and facility are located south of the police department.
But the old buildings have seen better days. The building housing the police department displays the storied charm characteristic of Windermere, but it’s not ideal for police headquarters. There are no holding cells and noise from the adjacent dance studio can penetrate the thin walls.
With the loan approved, the police department — along with town administration and public works — soon will have a home that is modern, secure and up to code.
And at a 2.1% rate over 20 years, Smith said, town staff is confident that the loan has been secured under the best rate and terms possible.
“This is really a culmination of at least five years of hard work,” Smith said. “For the five years, we’ve been not only been educating people on the need but letting them know that it’s just not an investment just to get nicer facilities, but it’s also an investment in the community because your heart and soul of your community is pretty much your town administration, police department and stuff like that. These buildings weren't meant to be for government facilities. They’re not in the best condition.”
Mayor Jim O’Brien said that the decision to move forward with new town facilities also is beneficial not just today, but also for 50 years down the road.
“It’s about setting ourselves up and making sure we have the right tools and the right facilities and we can attract the right staff for the future of Windermere,” O’Brien said.
In December, the Town Council approved moving forward with the first design option. It consists of the administrative offices and police department connected by a lobby. The public works building will be directly to the west.
It’s imperative, Smith said, to stay within the budget agreed upon. The town will be using a Construction Manager at Risk, or CMAR, who will deliver the project within a guaranteed maximum price. This ensures that the town won’t have to spend anything over what they voted to allocate.
“What’s so awesome about this is it’s good leadership and stewardship, and I think we’ve earned the trust of the residents,” said Police Chief Dave Ogden.
Included in the 3,000-square-foot town administration building are offices for the town manager, town clerk, human resources and financial directors, as well as a conference room and an open area with workstations.
The new, 5,445-square-foot police department includes space for records, patrol, a community and training room, multipurpose and weapons storage, lockers, a break area, evidence storage and offices for the chief and deputy chief. Additionally, there are workstations for sergeants and detectives.
For the 2,554-square-foot public works department, building space includes open work areas, officers for the foreman and director, a break room and space for mechanical and electrical. There also will be a 5,180-square-foot public works yard.
Smith said staff is working on a plan for temporary facilities while also working on the new facilities. The current projected timeline is end of May or June for demolition of the old municipal complex, he said, and construction should take 10 to 12 months. If all goes to plan, the new complex could be ready for move-in by summer 2021.
The police department and administration will have a temporary home at Fifth Avenue and Forest Street by the community room. Public works will operate out of temporary facilities over by the 1887 schoolhouse parking lot in conjunction with the staging area for the construction company. All construction will take place solely on the current site.
“Throughout this process, there will not be any change in level of service,” Smith said. “There’s no read closures or anything like that. If there are, it would be very, very slight and temporary, maybe for delivery of materials. We’re going to try to make the disruptions as minimal as possible. We’re going to be very conscious of the residents, the noise level, stuff like that.
“It does look exactly like these current facilities,” he said. “One-story (buildings), that charm, that feel, that character of the town. We want to make sure we maintain that.”
With a project of this caliber coming to fruition, town staff expressed their excitement for the upcoming changes.
“I think our entire team’s ecstatic, and I remember the day of the vote, we had … our officers actually sitting on the porch of the police department waiting for the vote,” Ogden said. “They were that excited about it. …It’s kind of a validation of what we've been through the last several years and the rebuild, rebrand and reimage of this agency that we’ve done. They’re excited to be in a new facility, one that meets the codes and the standards. …To come in and have that nice, professional facility is something that we’ve all kind of wanted.”
Along with the physical rebirth of the police department, however, comes other big news — Ogden and his crew are working to get accreditation measures, which would make the Windermere Police Department one of the few small police agencies in the state that are accredited.
“Within one year of being in the facility, our plan is to be an accredited police agency,” Ogden said. “That is a tremendous, big deal for us.”
O’Brien added that with the new facilities comes the opportunity to have police and town staff in place should hurricanes or other natural disasters occur — something that isn’t feasible with the current buildings.
“A new facility allows our public works, administration and police department staff to be in place during times of disasters,” O’Brien said. “That’s critical because they have to leave the current facility, and that puts them out of town … the chance of having them blocked off from our town by falling trees and such is pretty significant.”
He added that town staff and council members were pleased to be able to get the support of the community on ensuring the town has the proper facilities needed to serve the community, which also will assist in attracting the right staff to do so.
“Just like a lot of the improvements we’ve made with the police department, that comes through hard work, professionalism, caring about your people and making sure they have the right tools to do their job every day,” he said.