New Central Energy Plant to be built on part of surface lot at county’s Ringling Boulevard parking garage

County Commission asks staff to return on Feb. 27 with information to speed up design and construction

A graphic shows the three sites considered for the location of the new Central Energy Plant. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On one unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota County Commission approved the recommendation of staff and consultants to construct the new Central Energy Plant (CEP) on part of the surface lot adjacent to the county’s parking garage in downtown Sarasota.

That complex is located near the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and School Avenue.

On a second unanimous vote, the board asked Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, to return for a short update at the board’s next meeting regarding the potential for shaving four months off the estimated construction timeline of the CEP.

The latter motion came from Commissioner Alan Maio, who, over the past few years, repeatedly has cited concerns about the potential failure of the CEP because it provides air conditioning to numerous county structures in downtown Sarasota, including the Detention Center.

Lowdermilk had told the commissioners he could be back before them in September with a more refined cost estimate for the new facility, after the firm working as a consultant on the process completed a schematic of the design.

“Here we go again,” Maio told Lowdermilk. The county would have to endure another summer with the existing CEP: “Hot August and September days with bubblegum and duct tape — that’s an exaggeration — and air-freighting in parts — to keep the air conditioning in the jail humming. So speed, I think, is necessary here.”

One option, Lowdermilk responded, would be for the county to sign an agreement with the firm that has been consulting on the project — Trane U.S. — and pay it to go ahead and complete the design of the new CEP.

A graphic explains the facets of the Central Energy Plant in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He could return to the board by mid-March, he indicated, with more information about the potential expense, if the board wanted to pursue that option.

“We’d like to see that as soon as possible,” Chair Nancy Detert told Lowdermilk. “Anything you can do to speed [the project] up, as long as it’s within our budget …”

After that, Maio proposed Lowdermilk’s appearance at the Feb. 27 County Commission meeting.

A “rough order of magnitude” cost estimate for the new CEP on the surface parking lot site is $13,750,000, Lowdermilk said during the board’s regular meeting on Feb. 13. He added that, based on the preliminary timeline staff was considering, the new facility could be completed by January 2020. If the commissioners chose to accelerate that by approving a design contract with Trane before the end of the month, he indicated, the new CEP could be finished in September 2019.

A long process

On Oct. 31, 2017, Maio also made the motion to approve the $412,500 contract with Trane to undertake an investment-grade energy audit as the first step in the process to replace the CEP.

During that meeting, Lowdermilk explained that the energy audit would take about four months. Under the terms of the Trane contract, he continued, the firm would analyze 73 county facilities encompassing 1.9 million square feet in an effort to identify steps staff could take to reduce energy expenses. If the commission chose to employ Trane for the entire CEP project, Lowdermilk said at that time, then Trane would guarantee that the county’s energy savings, as a result of the audit, would exceed the $412,500 expense of the initial contract.

Jeff Lowdermilk. File photo

On Feb. 13, Lowdermilk again discussed the reasons for the urgency in replacing the Central Energy Plant. Constructed in 1997 at the intersection of East Avenue and Main Street in downtown Sarasota, the plant has “some reliability issues,” he pointed out. “Several large pieces of equipment are end-of-life,” he continued. Over the past couple of years, he said, “some of the facilities [it serves] have actually heated up,” necessitating elected officials in downtown Sarasota having to send employees home early.

Additionally, Lowdermilk told the board, “there’s been a time or two we were actually on eBay, trying to find a few parts [for the CEP].”

“We’re on the ragged edge of being able to provide adequate cooling for all of the facilities [for which the CEP provides air conditioning],” he pointed out. Moreover, he said, “It’s about a [hurricane Category 1/Category 2] facility. The roof would probably be the first thing that would depart the facility [in a major storm], and the walls to follow behind that.”

In considering the siting of a new CEP, he continued, the Trane team and county staff assessed the potential for rebuilding the facility in its existing footprint; building a new facility on the southernmost part of the Health Department parking lot; or constructing a new CEP on part of the surface lot at the county parking garage site.

The current location at Main and East, he noted, has about 17,000 square feet. That would limit facets of a new design that would be more energy-efficient, he added. For example, Lowdermilk explained, no space exists there for the inclusion of a thermal storage area. The latter refers to maintaining a supply of ice during off-peak demand periods for Florida Power & Light Co., with the ice to be used during on-peak demand times to assist with cooling water for air conditioning systems in the county buildings the CEP serves.

Staff has been considering including the Health Department among the other facilities for which the CEP provides air conditioning, he continued, but that extra capacity would not be possible if the commissioners wanted to see the new CEP stand on the site of the existing one.

Furthermore, Lowdermilk noted, because the CEP would have to continue operating while the new facility was underway on the current site, construction would be more challenging. Still, the estimated expense of that project would be the cheapest of the three options: $9.6 million.

City of Sarasota members staff would prefer a new CEP be built on the same site as the existing one, he added, but they also agreed that a new facility next to the county’s parking garage would be preferable to constructing the CEP on the Health Department property.

Lowdermilk explained that a developer has tentative plans for a residential project adjacent to the Health Department, and the CEP would stand approximately four to five stories high. Additionally, he said, sound-baffling technology would be incorporated into the design, if the plant were constructed on that site.

A chart shows pros and cons of the three potential locations for the new facility. ‘SO’ stands for Sheriff’s Office. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Finally, building the new CEP at the Health Department would entail the highest expense for the county of the three potential locations: an estimated $16.2 million.

The use of the surface parking area next to the county garage would necessitate the elimination of 40 to 50 parking spaces, Lowdermilk said. However, since the Sheriff’s Office relocated about 100 of its employees to its new administrative building on Cattleridge Boulevard early this year, he added, that has freed up some of the parking spaces in the county garage complex.

He also addressed concerns about how full the garage might be on days when the largest jury pools have been ordered to appear at the Silvertooth Judicial Center on Ringling Boulevard. Research staff has undertaken, he said, showed that over the past 15 years, the garage complex has been full on only two or three occasions.

Given all the factors that were considered, Lowdermilk told the board, staff “highly recommends” the construction of the new CEP on the parking garage property.

Prior to the votes on Feb. 13, Commissioner Charles Hines commended Lowdermilk. “A project like this doesn’t get the public attention … like a park,” Hines pointed out. Yet, “this has been a project that has been a board priority for a number of years.”

Lowdermilk’s presentation, Hines added, was “very well done, to give us the information that we need to make a decision. … It is a lot of money, [but] it involves … a lot of future needs and use.”

Lowdermilk thanked Hines and pointed out that a number of county employees and consultants had assisted with the initiative.

Maio also joked that he needed to take lessons from Lowdermilk on “calm delivery.”

Maio especially noted Lowdermilk’s remark about how “the roof [of the CEP] would be the first thing to depart the area [in a major hurricane] …”

“Be a little more alarming,” he teased Lowdermilk.