Matthew Bailey/Turnagain Times
Little Bears Playhouse needs major renovations, otherwise it cannot remain open says the municipality. In the meantime, the community and city staff are trying to work out a resolution to keep the building open or move to another building.
By Celina Sumner
Turnagain Times Correspondent
The threat to shut down a non-profit childcare facility by first snowfall in Girdwood has garnered strong community opposition.
The Girdwood Community Center was packed on the Monday, Aug. 15, for the Girdwood Board of Supervisors quarterly meeting with the Municipality of Anchorage staff, and a majority of those in attendance were there to express how Little Bears Playhouse cannot afford to shut down – even for just a week – because of its importance to the community.
“This is about the safety of the children, not about being Big Brother,” said Anchorage City Manager George Vakalis. “The issue is the building is unsafe during winter months when snow accumulates on the roof.”
Vakalis offered two options. The first was to use the Girdwood Community Center as the new daycare. He said this short-term solution would involve a few modifications including installing a second sink, to install a small platform and movable potty training seat so that children may use the bathroom facilities, and to hire additional staff (or find a volunteer) who would help take the children to the bathroom.
This suggestion has been frowned upon by much of the community including many groups who use the room for meetings, the library staff, and even the Little Bears Board is not in favor of this option.
“The preferred option is to stay where we are, we do not want to use the community room,” said Little Bears Board member Molly Hickox. “Temporary moves are not financially feasible. We need to make one move, and that’s to our new location which will serve us for the next 20-plus years.”
The Little Bears Board stated that they are pursuing funding through the capital improvements process, as well as with grants and fundraising, for a new building that would be located in the South Townsite. This process has been taking place for four years, and the board has been working with Heritage Land Bank and the municipality, who have promised a land grant or low cost long-term lease, according to the board.
“I have strong reservations against using the community room,” said Utilities Supervisor David Chadwick.
Chadwick added that he is a former Little Bear and supports that the daycare keep operating out of their current location. He said it is imperative that there is no interruption in the daycare’s service because of the effect that it would have on the parents who rely on having their children cared for while they are at work. He added that studies have been done, which show the positive effects preschools have on a child’s overall education.
Chadwick’s comments were met with applause from the entire room.
The second option offered by Vakalis was to hire a licensed, bonded and insured contractor to remove the snow. This person must hold the municipality, Little Bears and GBOS harmless from liability, and a third party person will monitor snow load.
“We proposed to city officials on Aug. 4, the option of removing the snow from the roof, and Alan Czajkowksi and John Huzey both said ‘No’, said Little Bears Director Lauren Ippolito.
Czajkowski is the city’s deputy director of maintenance and operations, and Huzey is manager of facility and fleet maintenance.
However, at the Aug. 15 meeting, Vakalis said hiring a contracted person, who has to meet the qualifications, is now an option, and is the route that is being actively pursued by Little Bears board and staff.
“I think this is the most viable option, and I hope this is what we work toward,” said GBOS co-chair Roads Supervisor Karen Zaccaro.
The following day after the meeting, Ippolito confirmed that a contractor in Girdwood has agreed to do the snow removal, but the name has not yet been released because the city still has to approve and write up a legal contract for the potential contractor. A tentative meeting with the Little Bears board and staff and the city staff is scheduled to take place Tuesday, Aug. 23.
Last year, the municipality put a lock on Glacier City Hall, which supplied storage and staff restrooms for Little Bears, deeming it unsafe. City staff said if certain repairs were made, Little Bears could once again utilize Glacier City Hall. Repairs were made, but Little Bears still does not have permission to use Glacier City Hall, according to Ippolito.
Earlier this year the city hired an independent engineering firm, US KH Inc., to perform an architectural code study and gravity load analysis of the Little Bears facility. USKH performed the inspection on May 12.
The recommended improvements to bring the building to “minimum life-safety code level for structural and architectural” by staff from USKH in their report included: replacing the entire roof, installing fire safety walls, supports in crawlspace and walls, replace the exit door, installing safety glass, add handrail and balusters to side exit stairs, “reconstruct and/or patch roofing, finishes, mechanical, and electrical for new work,” provide detectors, and post signs that say maximum occupancy is 48.
A rough order of magnitude cost estimate for the upgrades would be $336,000, but does not include mechanical, electrical or finish upgrades. According to the report the cost estimate of a new building of the same type is $978,000, adding “these figures assume a wood framed structure and prevailing public sector work wages.”
“We recommend the building remain unoccupied during winter months until the roof framing is retrofitted for the prescribed snow load,” according to the USKH report. “The building may be occupied this summer until the first snowfall.”
According to some literature distributed by Little Bears, the structural report is dated June 7, 2011, and “Little Bears was not formally contacted by the Municipality regarding the USKH structural report. Little Bears was given the report by the GBOS on July 6.”
The Little Bears board scheduled a meeting with the municipality on Aug. 4, and was informed that they would need to be out of the building by the first snowfall.
“This is a tremendously short deadline,” Hickox said.
The report also stated that the reasons the roof has not fallen yet is because heat has been escaping the building through the poorly-insulated attic, causing it to heat the metal roof and melt the snow.
Many community members in attendance questioned “why now?” and inquired when the building was last inspected.
One community member in attendance said he has seen some of the heaviest snowfall in Girdwood and the Little Bears building survived. Others added that Little Bears has been a gathering place during emergency situations (the Girdwood School is the main place to gather during emergencies).
The city performs regular maintenance, but it isn’t until staff sees signs of failure that an inspection is performed, according to Vakalis. He added that the initial report came from the city staff, prompting the city to hire an independent firm.
According to Little Bears board members, a number of community members, contactors and groups have offered to volunteer their time to make improvements.
This suggestion has not set well with city staff due to insurance and liability issues.
“I think you are underestimating how we pull together as a community,” said community member Kristine Lewis, in regards to how fast Girdwood comes together in times of crisis.
“We are tired of being dictated to,” community member Rich Lauterbach heatedly proclaimed, adding that the city doesn’t understand the passion the Girdwood community has when they know there are dire straits.
Lauterbach’s comments were followed by applause.
“I understand passion,” said Vakalis. “I am certainly not throwing any idea out.”
Vakalis said he would be bringing other ideas to the city staff. Other ideas included portable classroom, heating wires for the roof, and a possibility of Little Bears taking ownership of the building, while the city still owns the land.
It seems, though, the current plan is for Little Bears board and staff to find a licensed, bonded and insured contractor to remove the snow and would find the city, GBOS and Little Bears harmless from liability.
While the Little Bears crisis was the hot topic on the agenda with the GBOS’s meeting with the municipality, there were other items as well.
The GBOS has been advised to begin formulating their Capital Improvements Projects list for state legislation.
The new Girdwood parks and recreation, roads and facilities paid position will be posted on the municipality’s Website this week. This person acts as a liaison between the city and mayor and GBOS. Although the mayor appoints this person because it is an executive position, the GBOS has been assured by the city that the mayor will be accepting advice from the GBOS on their choice of applicants.
Olympic Mountain Loop has been federally funded for the preliminary survey and engineer work, and a $3.5 million Arlberg Extension project is in the design process. As for Girdwood Town Square, the Department of Transportation advertised a project bid opening scheduled for Sept. 1. Construction is scheduled to start next summer. The project can lose funding if it is not completed by 2014.
The South Town Site Committee is waiting to hear back about the status of the South Town Site Project.
“Cars are being towed away,” said supervisor Tommy O’Malley, who had signs posted at the Park and Ride to help get rid of abandoned vehicles. “So far at no cost.”