PALMETTO -- Lyndon Johnson was in office, the price of gas was 30 cents a gallon and a police department building was being constructed in this small town called Palmetto.
The year was 1964 and other than an add-on in the 1970s, the Palmetto Police Department has been operating out of the same building ever since. Times, needs and technology changed as did the size of the force, said Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells.
"The town was smaller then and so was the department," said Wells. "It's fulfilled its purpose, but we are outgrowing it. We need more space and need more rooms to accommodate the kind of law enforcement technology we have today that wasn't around in 1964."
The existing police department building has become a city liability, Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said pointing to maintenance costs and potential structural problems.
"We knew about three or four years ago that we were going to have to do something," said Bryant. "But we struggled with how we could orchestrate a new building. That's why we are exploring a new tactic."
The idea: relocate the police department into a blighted or high-crime neighborhood. Building a new $15 million structure is considered an improvement to a blighted neighborhood and opens the door to grant funding.
The new strategy is cost-saving and could be beneficial in reducing crime, according to Wells.
"Community Redevelopment Agency Director Jeff Burton is the one who came up with this public/private partnership idea," said Wells. "We began to discuss it and decided to see if we can make it work.
"It's not going to happen any other way," the police chief said. "This is a viable choice and we think it's going to pay off in two ways. One way is the money it will save the city taxpayers and secondly, we want to build it where it will have the most visibility. Just by having a police station in a problem area that is operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week and constant patrols coming and going, it should have an effect in reducing crime."
The city is proposing using a piece of property in the 500 block of 10th Street West near a migrant housing community for workers at a nearby tomato packing plant.
The city owns the property, Wells said, another cost-savings.
"There are more steps to take before we can even think about numbers," she said. "Right now, an invitation is being sent to have different entities make different proposals. In the meantime, we are searching for cost-saving opportunities. We haven't delineated those yet, but we have meetings coming up and expect to make a report to the commission by the second week in April."
Bryant said it's always time to talk about what's being spent.
"It will be very cost-effective to have a new facility compared to what we are paying now for maintenance," she said.
Bryant could not provide an estimate on how much the city spends on maintaining a 1960s-era building, but Wells said all the city is doing at this point is "polishing an old fender and trying to keep it shiny. The roof is a huge concern and we continue to try and patch it up to keep it from leaking. And, of course, moisture has been seeping in for years, so we have a mold problem. It's just overall deterioration."
Bryant said public response has been "overwhelmingly positive" to a new police department building, especially in the proposed location.
If successful, a new police building will last as long as the one that has served the community since 1964.
"We have to build it for the future," said Wells. "We don't need to build it for now. We want to make sure that in 25 years, that new building accommodates all the needs of whoever will be chief of police, the officers and, more importantly, the community."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.