New county ‘chiller plant’ project to get underway on Ringling Boulevard

Motorists asked to exercise caution, with coming changes to traffic patterns in the affected area

This is a rendering of the new county cooling plant. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Construction of the new Sarasota County cooling facility — or “chiller plant” — at the intersection of School Avenue and Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota soon will be getting underway, the county announced on Aug. 19.

The site where it will stand is part of the former surface lot at the Sarasota County Parking Garage, across from the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County.

Anticipated to be completed and operational in summer 2021, the new cooling plant will replace a structure in downtown Sarasota that dates to 1998. The aging facility will be decommissioned, a county news release points out.

The new plant will provide chilled water to the air conditioning systems that serve county buildings on Ringling Boulevard, including the Sheriff’s Office’s Detention Center and the Terrace Building, which is home to the offices of the Tax Collector’s, the Supervisor of Elections and Property Appraiser’s offices.

Project Manager Brad Gaubatz pointed out in the news release that the construction of the cooling plant will affect sections of Payne Park’s northern parking lot, Adams Lane and the drive that separates the Sarasota Police Department and the Judge Lynn N. Silvertooth Judicial Center. The entry and exit lanes of the county parking garage also will be adjusted to maintain access while construction is underway, the release notes.

“We’re asking the community and motorists to exercise caution and be observant of these temporary conditions and signage near the project areas,” Gaubatz added in the release.

After ground has been broken, construction is expected to last approximately 415 days, with a total cost of $14.8 million, the release says.

An aerial map shows the location of the new Downtown Cooling Plant, outlined in red. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In June 2018, Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, had talked with the county commissioners about his hope that construction of the new facility could begin in January 2019.

On June 12, 2018, the County Commission voted unanimously to approve the project. Over the previous months, the board members had discussed the initiative with Lowdermilk in an effort to determine the best approach. One option had been to allow a private company to bid to build the new cooling plant.

However, given the strong credit rating the county has had for years, Lowdermilk explained during that June 2018 meeting that staff anticipated the county potentially could save about $13 million by borrowing the funds for the project, as the annual debt service was expected to be only $1.6 million. The latter figure, Lowdermilk said, reflected what he called a conservative estimate of 4% interest charged on a 20-year loan of $21.4 million.

Over the years, in presentations to the board, Lowdermilk and other staff members had talked about the fact that many of the components of the county’s Central Energy Plant were at their end-of-life stage. The facility stands next to the Criminal Justice Center and the East Wing of the jail, at the corner of Main Street and East Avenue in downtown Sarasota.

During a number of the discussions, Commissioner Alan Maio voiced worries about the dire situation that would ensue if the aging facility suffered a sudden, catastrophic failure. He offered up one scenario about jail inmates being without air conditioning in the hottest part of the summer.

County staff at times has had to rely on air freight to speed up delivery of new components to replace those that ceased functioning, he pointed out.