LAUREL — For 2019 hurricane season, Venice officials note North Port will be where people are transported if they need shelter.

In the meantime, Sarasota County Emergency Management officials say they need more community uses for the hurricane shelter proposed by Sarasota Memorial Hospital on Laurel Road to make it financially viable, or they’ll look elsewhere.

In a memo by Rich Collins, Emergency Services Director, to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, dated May 13, Collins described significant progress already made and steps taken to reach agreement on the joint project.

The plan is to construct a 35,000-square-foot evacuation center with a capacity to hold 1,000 evacuees during an emergency. The shelter would be on the new hospital campus located at Laurel Road near Interstate 75 in Venice.

Collins said the center could also be available as a regional and statewide asset to shelter neighboring communities when Sarasota County is not an impact county.

It was envisioned the building would have multiple uses during non-emergencies, but to date SMH has only committed to office uses, like meeting space or space for symposiums.

Collins said while office uses are needed, “the limited uses decrease synergies potentially available to other county needs such as community use, sports and recreation.” In other words, fewer uses mean fewer grant and legislative allocation opportunities, and fewer joint funding opportunities.

Search for fundsSMH is offering the land, but “has indicated it will not provide any funding beyond their original commitment,” Collins said.

A legislative request for $5 million didn’t come through. The current county capital budget allocates only $3 million for the project, far short of the $12-$14 million for construction alone.

“This leaves the project well below the required funding,” Collins said.

“Constructing a building for the potential infrequent use as only a hurricane evacuation center limits effective use of (capital) funding,” Collins said.

He praised the SMH team for working with county officials, but said to be successful there needs to be more uses, like potentially a clinic, EMS training space or sports facility.

He recommended the county meet again with SMH to identify additional building uses and funding to increase the project viability, “or notify SMH it will seek other options.”

SMH said it’s important the other uses being sought are compatible with its operations.

“Sarasota Memorial remains committed to partnering on the hurricane shelter if funding is available and the facility’s other uses are consistent with our primary obligation as a health care provider,” said SMH spokesperson Ellen Simon in an email.

Pinelands ReserveFinding location for a center south of Blackburn Point Road in Sarasota has been an issue due to elevation, Collins said.

So they’re looking for higher ground. One alternative location is out by I-75, which tends to have that higher ground. A parcel owned by Florida Power and Light on Laurel Road is one option.

Emergency Management officials are also looking at property within the Pinelands Reserve along Knights Trail Road. Negotiations are ongoing.

“We’re working tirelessly on this,” Collins said. “We’re not taking this lightly. It is a major initiative. The fact that existing schools are working with us is a good start. But we’re not stopping there. We’re pushing for additional space.”

In the meantime, the 2019 hurricane season begins in a few weeks without an approved hurricane shelter in the Venice area.

The current plan is to bus people to North Port area schools that are approved as hurricane centers.

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