Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

TOP STORY > >Letting bids on education center nears

Leader senior staff writer

“We are looking at awarding the construction contract in December or January and looking at…occupancy in September 2010,” Little Rock Air Force Base’s chief civil engineer said last week of the Joint Education Center.

Design progress continues on the Little Rock Air Force Base/Jacksonville Joint Education Center, but the rising cost of construction materials means the building will be 50 percent smaller than originally anticipated.

The federal government has allocated $14.8 million for the project and Jacksonville residents have taxed themselves another $5 million for the building that will house college classes for both airmen and civilians, according to Jay Whisker, director of administration for Jacksonville.

At one time, the building was envisioned as an 81,000 square-foot structure adequate to provide all the space needed for several colleges to hold classes.

Now, the base bid is likely to be for 17,000 square feet, plus an array of 3,600 square feet of enhancements, depending on the costs, according to James McKinnie, chief of the engineering flight, 314th Civil Engineering Squad at the base.

Even when the Jacksonville contribution is formally accepted, the building may be 44,000 square feet or less, McKinnie said.

He said the building could come in at about 35,000 square feet.

The collaboration between the Air Force and the city is so unusual that no mechanism exists to readily accept the city’s $5 million contribution, Mayor Tommy Swaim has said.

Authorization has now reached Air Force Headquarters in Washington, according to McKinnie.

There it awaits further review and eventually authorization by the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations.

Jacksonville residents voted themselves a penny hamburger tax for one year in 2003 to pay for the education center, but it took the federal government until last year to authorize its share and in the meanwhile, the cost of steel, asphalt, concrete and petroleum have risen dramatically, reducing the amount of building the Air Force and city will get for their buck.

Soil testing also proved that the building site, roughly at the intersection of John Hardin and Vandenberg Boulevard, had expansive soils, bad for building.

The net effect of that is to increase the cost of building the foundation, McKinnie said.

The engineering is about 50 percent done now, he added.

Current plans call for access to the building from John Hardin, he said, but if there is enough money, a second drive off Vandenberg could be added.

McKinnie said the downsized version of the Joint Education Center might not be large enough to accommodate all of the center’s needs.

He said it would be large enough for about 528 students in various classrooms, computer and science labs, but without much office space.

He said some of the college’s functions, particularly administrative, might still occur in one of the old Joint Education Center buildings, on the base behind the fence.

The new building also is designed to meet the LEED environmental standards, nearly to the “silver” level, McKinnie said.

He added the plan called for leaving as many trees on the wooded site as possible, with removal of the rest slated to begin in October.

McKinnie said Whisker and Swaim have been very helpful and cooperative in the process.