July 30, 2021

OUR VIEW Babcock facility will be a plus for communities

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

OUR POSITION: It may not be as grand as it started out to be, but the community building/ hurricane shelter at Babcock Ranch is a plus for the communities it will serve.

Count the community building/hurricane shelter at Babcock Ranch as another victim of the pandemic.  When the project was pitched to the Florida Legislature, the proposal called for a much larger building with the ability to shelter almost twice as many people during a hurricane. There was language that indicated Charlotte and Lee counties might be kicking in as much as $2 million each to help build the facility.  That was before the pandemic.

The Legislature approved $8 million to help build the shelter. No other money came in.  “When the pandemic hit, I had no people or groups that could commit to investing,” Babcock Ranch founder Syd Kitson said. “If we didn’t do something (this year) then the state would take back its $8 million.”  So, the building’s size was compromised and Babcock Ranch is investing $6 million of its own money. But the good news is, the shelter and community center will be built — hopefully completed before the 2022 hurricane season. The 40,600-square-foot building will now house 1,343 people — down from the initial plans for 2,500 people to take shelter there.

The changes in size and scope are disappointing and Charlotte County Commissioner Joe Tiseo, who has criticized the project’s origins, is unhappy with the changes.  “I am not sure this will be approved for a hurricane shelter because State Road 31 floods easily and I don’t believe the Red Cross will approve it,” Tiseo said. “This whole thing has been based on false promises,” he continued, alluding to the idea that Charlotte and Lee counties would contribute millions to the construction.

Kitson said he has a team working with all counties who might use the facility — Hendry, Lee, DeSoto and Charlotte — to work out an agreement who would run the shelter during a hurricane.  “We’d like the Red Cross to run it,” Kitson said. The reality that Babcock Ranch will benefit from the facility has never been a question. You can’t build a hurricane shelter of this magnitude and expect it to sit idle until a storm hits. The building will contain two gymnasiums, locker rooms, a cafeteria and other amenities that will enable it to host community events — and also be available for events at the high school being built on Babcock Ranch.  “I really think the smaller size will work out better,” Kitson said. “It will be an awesome building and a (plus) for the community. Remember it is a public facility. It will not be private. Charlotte County can use it to have high school graduations for example.”

The facility will be the first of its kind in Charlotte County. There could be multiple uses including to host sports events — both local and statewide.  A hotel is planned nearby that could house families attending competitions — or FPL employees using Babcock as a staging area for hurricane response.  Tiseo’s complaints about state money being used to build a facility that will benefit Babcock Ranch and how the deal came down should not be swept away with a simple that was then, this is now mentality. But, at the same time, the reality is the money has been dedicated, the project will be a benefit to several communities and Babcock Ranch has skin in the game if it invests $6 million in the community center/ shelter.

There are too many positives to try to spin this accomplishment any other way.