The Commercial Appeal
‘It’s a necessity’
At $20M, rehab of county building a practical matter
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell did some excavating Friday, finding among other things in his desk drawer his five-year county service pin, lots of lip balm, a pocket knife given to him by the Tennessee Association of Sheriffs and an old high school photograph.
Luttrell and the employees on the eighth floor of the Vasco L. Smith Jr. County Administration Building are moving to new offices on the 11th floor as work nears the midway point on a $20 million renovation.
Built in 1969 at 160 N. Main for $5.4 million (according to the county’s website), the renovations will upgrade the aging mechanical systems, bring the building into compliance with t he Americans With Disabilities Act and put public restrooms for both genders on each floor.
“Infrastructure is never a real sexy issue, but it’s a necessity,” said Luttrell, noting there will be a community open house once the move is complete.
The project is not a cosmetic upgrade but necessary because of failing mechanical systems, leaking pipes and an air-conditioning system installed in the ceilings, said Tom Needham, county public works director.
More than half of the budget will cover those upgrades and to install a fire protection system, which was not a requirement in 1969, he said.
County employees also won’t have to go upstairs or downstairs to find a restroom. The original design had men’s and women’s The remodeled Shelby County Mayor’s office will be a bit simpler than the old one, but the antique brass doorknobs, which came from the Shelby County Courthouse, are being preserved. restrooms on each floor, but building codes then required a third stairwell, which was installed where the men’s rooms were intended to go, Needham said.
The restrooms and the entire building will also be ADA compliant.
Contractor EMJ-Inman Construction Inc., has also had the challenge of working in an occupied building. The company has been good about stopping when things become too noisy and working around Shelby County Commission meetings, Needham said.
When completed in fall 2014, the space created by giving nearly everyone a smaller office, by moving some workers from offices to cubicles and by pulling out the old air conditioning units that sit under the windows and circle the exterior walls, will leave three floors empty, Needham said.
The county will then be able to either move employees from rented space or close an inefficient county property, he said.
The Shelby County Commission ap-
proved the renovation project last year, but it wasn’t automatic. The proposal was voted down in committee before gaining approved by the full board.
Commission Chairman Mike Ritz didn’t support the project and wanted the county to look at moving. He and other commissioners also had questions about the clarity of the contract information that was released and resulted in few bidders.
“There was so little work in this community a few months ago there was no reason we didn’t get five or six bids at least,” Ritz said.
Needham said he was able to show commissioners that constant repairs would cost more over time than renovating, and that by his calculations, utility bills over a 10-year period would be $3.4 million with the upgrades compared to $6.1 million without them.
Last week commissioners had questions about a $360,000 request for new furniture for employees. They were told the move wasn’t generating the furniture bill and that the employees and the mayor will use existing furniture, except new bookcases to replace built-in shelving.
The mayor’s new of- fice doesn’t have wood wainscoting like his old one, and the countertops in the reception areas are a man-made product that looks like granite, Needham said.
They are, however, salvaging the antique brass doorknobs in the mayor’s office, which came from the Shelby County Courthouse and have the county seal.
“The goal was to get it done within the budget we had, to make it long-term functional and durable without being gold-plated,” he said.
For now, the renovation project is on budget, although Needham won’t say yet if it will be under budget. And he doesn’t intend to ask the commission for more money.
“Because I promised Commissioner (Heidi) Shafer I would not come back and ask for another dime,” Needham said. “And I’m not going to.”