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Jackson Health Department project to cost less than expected

Jackson Health Department project to cost less than expected

Upgrading the Jackson County Health Department could prove a much less expensive undertaking than originally anticipated, if estimates contained in a recently completed study prove correct.

Commissioners ranked constructing a new health department building as the most important capital priority to pursue when they discussed capital priorities last winter, but the project was expected to be a rather expensive one. Then-County Manager Chuck Wooten used $9.5 million as the placeholder figure for the project’s likely cost. 

Since then, commissioners have learned that the department might not need as much additional space as was first supposed and that a renovation of the existing building might be sufficient to meet its future needs. A study to examine the feasibility of a renovation over new construction, completed by McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, put the cost of renovation between $4.7 million and $5.7 million, with a new building costing about $5.6 million. The study itself cost $18,800.

Commissioners were pleasantly surprised to see estimates come in at about half the number they’d originally worked with, but architect Ronnie Smith was quick to point out that the true cost of the project would be higher than the numbers quoted in the study. 

“These were just construction costs,” he said. “So furniture, architecture fees, testing — there will be some additional costs.”

The estimate for a new building, for example, does not include the cost of purchasing land, which would vary widely depending on the tract in question. Architecture and engineering fees typically run between 7 and 10 percent of the project cost, said County Manager Don Adams, with contingency costs typically at 5 to 10 percent. Other costs such as furniture are difficult to predict so early in the process. 

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The proposed renovation would include a complete gutting of the existing building on Scotts Creek Road, but the envelope of the building would remain virtually the same. Extra space would come from reorganization of the existing square footage and from newly freed-up area previously used by Jackson County Cooperative Extension and the Jackson County Soil and Water Conservation District. Those agencies relocated to the Skyland Services Center on Skyland Drive after a renovation of that building was completed last year. 

While creating additional working space is certainly a goal of the project, increasing functionality of existing space will be just as important. 

“Part of the problem with the existing building is privacy and HIPAA regulations and things like that, so we have to make sure we can incorporate that into each space,” Smith said. 

The plan includes reworking the waiting room so that patients can discuss their needs more privately with receptionists, for example, as well as installing elevators that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and reconfiguring exam rooms so they’re large enough to accommodate basic functions, such as administering eyesight tests at the proper distance from the chart. 

The study commissioners received this month is not an architectural design — it’s a more preliminary document intended to gauge whether the existing building even has the capacity to meet the health department’s needs. The upshot, Smith said, is that it does. The study estimates the department needs about 29,100 square feet, though a new building could be constructed a bit more efficiently and get the job done with 28,500 square feet. 

Health Director Shelley Carraway complimented Smith’s firm for their work and for the extensive input she and her employees were given toward the study’s outcome. However, she did express concern that the proposed renovations would leave little room for growth in the department. The original concept of a $9.5 million building had hinged on an old study that anticipated the 55-employee department would grow to 115 employees, and while times have changed and that forecast is no longer accurate, Carraway said she felt some growth should still be expected. 

“We anticipate some growth in environmental health,” she said. “The clinic, it depends on the grants that we get. But I would not anticipate a large growth.”

Perhaps, she guesstimated, the department would add about 10 employees over the next 10 years. 

Meghan Teague, an architect for the firm, offered that the space could be made to accommodate more growth if necessary. 

“We’ve programmed private offices for every staff member,” she said. “A lot of times we’ll see more of an open office work environment and that could save us significant square footage. It’s not the way they work right now, but it might be something to consider.”

Another consideration will be how to phase the project. Smith offered three options ranging in cost from $4.7 million to $5.7 million. The recommended alternative, which is also the least expensive, would be to renovate the east side of the building in year one and then the west side of the building in year two. Because Cooperative Extension and the Soil and Water District have already moved out of the building, this plan would entail minimal disruption to the department’s day-to-day operations.

Commissioners thanked Smith and Teague for the information and are now considering which route would be best to take in this multi-million dollar project. 

“I don’t think we would be in a position to make a decision today,” Chairman Brian McMahan said as the presentation concluded. “I’d like to sleep on it.”

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