City considers new fire station


The current building is in sad shape; it once was a maintenance garage for a nearby country club.

BY MICHAEL A. SCARCELLA

PUNTA GORDA -- Fire Station No. 2 is set up in an old garage off a section of Burnt Store Road that was a dirt lane ten years ago.

"Have you ever seen it?" asked David Hilston, the chief city planner, last week. "Less than inspiring."

The white metal structure, which the city bought in 1991, was once a maintenance garage for a nearby country club. It now houses two firetrucks, two firefighters, a makeshift weight room in one corner, and a big-screen television flanked by maroon leather furniture.

Fire officials want to replace the 20-year-old building at a cost of $800,000, according to the city's list of proposed projects that could receive funding from the 1 percent sales tax revenue.

"Things just wear out," fire Capt. Ray Briggs said. "It wasn't built for fire use."

Briggs pointed to a rusted corner of the outside wall: "That's a pretty ugly one right there." The building, he said, isn't sealed too well.

Among the deficiencies he noted on a recent tour of the station: Sections of the exterior are corroding; the apparatus bay isn't big enough to house some larger equipment; and because its two bedrooms are separated only by lockers and there is just one shower, it won't accommodate men and women working together.

The city has no female firefighters.

There's no formal development proposal; the station replacement plan remains conceptual, and a new location hasn't been selected, according to City Manager Willard Beck.

"It's a building we believe the council should be looking at," Beck said Friday evening. "It's one of those things on the drawing board."

Matthew Free, the assistant fire chief, said the station's been improved twice, with doors and floor replacement, since it opened.

"It's all preliminary stuff," Free said Friday.

Punta Gorda has recently replaced one fire station, and built another.

The new Public Safety Complex downtown, where the main fire and police stations are located, opened last year. Former mayor and city councilman Rufus C. Lazzell called the interior of the previous building "a rat's maze -- narrow hallways, right angles. It was nasty inside."

The 20,000-square-foot safety building cost $3.2 million. It has a generator strong enough to power a city block, a training room, and an advanced communications center.

And, a little more than two years ago, the city opened a 6,000-square-foot station, No. 3, on Aqui Esta Drive.

The two-story, columned building is painted a washed-out pink and looks nothing like a traditional firehouse. It cost a little less than the $800,000 the city set aside for its construction.

Fire Station No. 2's present site was chosen 12 years ago to serve the city's rapidly expanding southern half. I

f a new station were to be built, Beck said, it would be in the same area.

An abandoned Kmart sits across the street from Station No. 2, and Alligator Creek is a stone's throw away.

Most people don't know where the station is, said Briggs, standing outside on a hot afternoon. "As a general rule, we like the community to know where we are. As a general rule, a fire department shouldn't be hidden."

To get to the station, head south on U.S. 41 and turn right onto Burnt Store Road. Just before the bridge over the creek, veer right. Then turn left at the City of Punta Gorda sign. Two small signs on the building's facade say "fire station."

Lazzell, who served on the council when the city transformed the garage into a fire station, said that, while the station is "tough to find," it was the most available property then.

Some local critters have found it, though, and they apparently have made it their home.

There's a rat trap near the garbage cans at the entrance of the two-bay, 3,200-square-foot garage.

"Heard about the rats?" firefighter Rob Logan asked.

Rats? "No comment," he quickly replied.

Firefighter John Moya, who joined the department about six months ago, kicked the rat trap with his foot.

"Watch your step around here," he said. "Really."