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Agriculture Center to Boost Bartow’s Historic Downtown

Wed October 04, 2000 - Southeast Edition
Carol Morrison

New construction in the central Florida city of Bartow is tangible proof that when Florida Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford sets out to achieve a win/win outcome, he’s successful. For that’s just the story behind the Florida Department of Agriculture’s new Regional Operations Center that is rapidly taking shape on two historic Main Street city blocks in the downtown district of Polk County’s seat.

The Department of Agriculture (DOA) is charged with responsibilities ranging from ensuring safe and plentiful food supplies for residents to inspecting scales and gas pumps for accurate calibration, to helping consumers resolve problems with telemarketers, car repair businesses, and more. With such a variety of duties to discharge, it isn’t surprising to learn that the department’s employees work from locations all over the Sunshine State. It was the need for a conveniently-located office to consolidate small offices and home-based employees that led to the design for the new operations center.

Bartow’s convenient location near the rapidly-growing Interstate 4 corridor seemed ideal for the new project. It didn’t hurt that the city of about 15,000 people also happens to be Commissioner Crawford’s hometown. Thus, the win/win outcome. The people of Florida get a well-designed, centrally-located facility that will initially house 30 to 50 state employees, and Bartow benefits from the economic boost the $3.1- million center will bring to local restaurants, motels, and other businesses.

With backing from House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Putnam, (R-Bartow), and state Senator John Laurent, (R-Bartow), the project was included in Governor Jeb Bush’s budget and approved by the state legislature.

According to Agriculture Department Spokesman Terence McElroy, the first phase of the two-story center’s construction is on target for completion in January 2001. “The center is designed to accommodate up to 200 employees eventually,” McElroy noted, “but phase one will provide for 30 to 50 people, some of whom will come from smaller offices in Tampa and Orlando that are to be closed.” McElroy said that initial personnel in the Bartow office will include workers in law enforcement, food safety, the Division of Standards, environmental representatives, and others.

Tom Haslett, the DOA’s chief of general services is overseeing the construction. “The Regional Operations Center initially will house 35 to 45 offices, plus classrooms, and a 100-seat auditorium,” he said, adding that “the department is particularly pleased to have a flexible design that allows us to save many of the mature oak trees located on the two-block lot.”

Working from a design by Orlando architect Jim Dyer of the MRI Architecture Group Inc., Florida-based Britt Construction is handling the on-site duties. Construction Manager Steve Brown runs the crew of about 50 employees who are bringing the new building to life.

“This building’s well-designed and done with the community in mind,” Brown said, pointing out that the parking lot for the center will be constructed around existing trees. “We’ll also be saving two small outbuildings on the property, one of which dates to the 1920s.” Brown pointed out that the location was originally the site of a yellow-brick mansion constructed during Florida’s ’20s land boom. Redesigned to serve as a law office, the main structure was destroyed by fire in 1997. “The architect designed the operations center’s exterior so that it will have a yellow-brick look that’s similar to the original mansion and the remaining outbuildings,” Brown said. “This is a nice touch since the property abuts Bartow’s downtown historic district.”

According to Brown, the outbuildings will be cleaned up inside and given an exterior facelift. Plans for their final use are still pending. Meantime, the operations center’s 38-ft. lobby support columns are going up. The lobby will feature an open design with a picturesque main staircase and granite flooring. Up-to-the-minute communications technology is being engineered into the building’s construction to accommodate state-of-the-art electronic facilities in the completed center. Satellite television equipment will enable DOA employees to broadcast seminars and meetings to their colleagues in other parts of the state.

Britt Construction is well-versed in completing public buildings, Brown noted. Its past projects include a city hall for Wildwood, FL; the Winter Garden Post Office, Orange County government structures, and buildings for Orlando’s University of Central Florida.

According to Terence McElroy, phase 2 of the Regional Operations Center is currently in the concept stage and will move ahead as department needs dictate. CEG

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