OUR POSITION: Any controversy over its initial handling aside, a regional hurricane shelter at Babcock Ranch will be a potential life-saving asset for Charlotte County.
Barring an unlikely veto from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Legislature has approved $8 million for a regional hurricane shelter at Babcock Ranch. Despite some misgivings and criticism, that’s good news.
The shelter has been a hot topic of discussion for more than a month after Rep. Mike Grant, R-Port Charlotte, filed an appropriations request to help fund the facility. Charlotte County Commissioner Joe Tiseo was livid that the request was made without a public vetting.
A handful of citizens also expressed concern that the facility would be too much of a sweetheart deal for Babcock Ranch, which would use it for athletic events when hurricanes are not in play. The final cost is a floating target with a total of $10 million requested for the next fiscal year — including $8 million from the state. But, the appropriation includes a line that says between $3 million and $10 million may be requested from the state next year to complete the project, depending on costs and other investments. Babcock officials say they do not expect to request any more funding next year, however.
We’ve agreed these concerns are legitimate. But, they do not override the need for a hurricane shelter, nor the economic common sense of the Babcock location.
Tiseo would rebuild Port Charlotte Middle School and have it conform to specifics for a shelter. We like that idea too. But, no matter how high you build a new school, it is still in an area that is designated as a danger to flood in a high storm surge. And, the cost would far exceed the possible $2 million of local money needed to fund the Babcock shelter.
There are no locations we know of in Charlotte County where a shelter could be built — or an existing building refurbished — to shelter hundreds, or thousands, of people for less than $2 million.
State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, was a key player in pushing the deal through the Legislature after Grant initiated the idea. She is rooted in Lee County and, while that area has more than a couple of large arenas and facilities to serve as hurricane shelters, she understands the need for even more places of refuge.
The fact that Lee County does have ample facilities dissuades the argument that Lee residents will fill up the Babcock shelter. The idea that Babcock residents will take up much of the space is also a non-issue since those homes, like the proposed shelter, are on land that is high and dry and their homes are built to withstand the strongest of storms.
The location isn’t the most convenient for Charlotte County residents, we’ll agree with that. But there are two routes to get there, including using Interstate 75 and Bayshore Road, that make it more accessible than some would contend.
As far as a sweetheart deal is concerned, there is no doubt Babcock likely will make good use of the facility. But, as Kitson pointed out, the first few years are normally a loss on the books of any similar facility. Babcock plans to absorb those losses while taking responsibility for upkeep and managing the facility.
Kitson made a point of noting no money has been committed by Charlotte County so far. And, when the request comes up, it will all play out in the open, not behind closed doors. The public will have ample opportunity to voice concerns and/or opposition.
In the end, the shelter appears to be a win-win situation for all involved.