The City of Zephyrhills has decided to seek state funding for three improvement projects during the 2021 state legislative session.
Those projects involve improving Seventh Street; expanding the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center; and, improving a runway at Zephyrhills Municipal Airport. The total costs for all three projects is estimated at $11.6 million.
The Zephyrhills City Council unanimously approved staff’s recommendation to submit funding requests for these projects at a Jan. 11 regular meeting.
When the Florida Legislature meets, it considers requests from local governments for assistance with projects of local importance.
Zephyrhills must ask state Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City, and state Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, to sponsor these projects on the city’s behalf.
Staff will work to complete the applications and then submit to both the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate, said Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe.
Monies would theoretically be made available to Zephyrhills in July, should one or more of those projects be approved by the Florida Legislature and signed off on by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Here’s a more detailed look at the proposed projects:
- Seventh Street complete street
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has proposed to convert U.S. 301 and Sixth Street to a one-way pair street network. Because of these improvements, the city correspondingly wants to construct roadway improvements along Seventh Street from C Avenue north to U.S. 301. The roadway would be converted from a single two-lane, one-way northbound road to a two-lane, two-way road with the addition of a multi-use trail, sidewalk, on street parking where practical, and drainage improvements. The length of the street project is approximately 1.5 miles. Estimated cost is $6.3 million.
- Indoor tennis complex, plus outdoor hard courts
Shown as Phase II on the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center plans, this includes the construction of a 30,000-square-foot indoor tennis facility with the capability for other sports and activities (soccer, ping pong, banquets, ceremonies), along with associated parking. Additionally, staff would like to construct six outdoor hard courts, allowing for sanctioned hard-court tournaments. Estimated cost is $2.5 million.
Zephyrhills Municipal Airport runway extension
The city previously received a state appropriation of $5.9 million for the extension of runway 01-19, which is currently out to bid. However, an engineer’s cost estimate indicates the original appropriation will cover only the design and construction of the runway, and will not cover the paved runway shoulders, taxiway B extension, stormwater piping or the access road. These additional items have a total estimated cost of $2.8 million.
Before deciding to approve the project submissions, there was much discussion during the meeting — mainly concerning the additions to the tennis center and the airport runway extension.
Zephyrhills Council President Charles Proctor, for one, expressed disappointment because the city again must request for additional state funds regarding improvements to the airport runway. He was dismayed, as well, that no state funding requests were presented for improving various city parks facilities, including Hercules Park.
The city manager addressed both matters.
Poe detailed how original airport runway costs were likely underestimated because there was no design at the time of the requests for fiscal year 2018-2019, plus he said there was a short time frame for an engineer to put a package together. Moreover, construction costs have changed somewhat since then, Poe said.
“I agree, it’s crazy to me that $5.9 million doesn’t cover everything we needed out there; unfortunately, that’s where we are on that,” the city manager said.
As for not requesting anything in the way of local parks improvements from the state, Poe suggested next year might be more apt given expected state budget reductions due to the COVID-19 pandemic — where officials have said could hit the $5 billion shortfall range.
He mentioned conversations with various state representatives made it appear they’re likely to sponsor fewer projects on the whole because of the pandemic’s lingering effects. For example, Poe said Burgess previously told him he’d be comfortable sponsoring just two Zephyrhills projects this year.
Poe observed: “Let’s be honest, I think this state budget coming up here is going to be very tight. That doesn’t lend itself to a lot of appropriations, but we could be surprised. I think people are spending more than what we thought they would be throughout this past year, so hopefully projections were off.”
Meantime, there always had been plans to construct an indoor multi-purpose sports complex holding four tennis courts, at some point.
City council members were taken aback that the proposal also includes the construction of six additional outdoor hard-surface tennis courts to the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis & Wellness Center, situated on 10 acres at 6585 Simons Road.
The facility already features nine Har-Tru clay tennis courts, two hard-surface tennis courts, eight pickleball courts and four padel courts.
If the multimillion dollar expansion project is passed in its entirety, that would give the facility 21 tennis courts in one form or another, plus the pickleball and padel offerings.
Aside from a quartet of indoor/covered courts, Poe explained the reasoning for funding an additional six outdoor hard surface courts is to open the facility to a wider range of tournaments, and to accommodate increasing recreational uses and demands.
In order to host certain tournaments — such as high school district or regional meets — the facility must have a minimum of eight hard-surface courts, he said. (Any indoor courts would not count toward that requirement because they technically have a different playing surface.)
As a further added use — the outdoor hard-surface courts could be converted and taped into pickleball courts as needed, Poe said.
Council Vice President Jodi Wilkeson and Councilman Alan Knight questioned why an extra half-dozen outdoor hard courts weren’t part of original construction plans several years ago.
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t plan ahead,” Wilkeson said, adding she’d also like to at some point see some concrete economic data generated from tennis tournaments and other events.
“It would be nice for me to look at it from more of a business plan perspective,” she said. “We talk about these amorphous numbers that impact the community tax revenue, but what other source of revenue is there for the city as it relates to these tournaments, or the tennis center.”
Poe wasn’t quite sure why more hard courts weren’t included from the onset, as he wasn’t the city manager at that time.
He suggested this possibility: “I don’t know that it was anticipated that the center would be as successful as it has been this early.”
He also pointed out there was perhaps more emphasis on constructing clay courts at the time: “I think the thought was the future of tennis facilities is to have the Har-Tru courts. With the clay courts, it’s easier on the joints and offers a little more flexibility to its users,” Poe said.
Despite council’s critiques, they ultimately agreed to seek funding to advance the tennis center’s build out.
Councilman Lance Smith underscored the facility’s importance, to put the matter into perspective: “I was over there for some of the (recent) tournaments and there were people from all over Florida that were in Zephyrhills, spending money in our restaurants, and then some of them lived at homes across the street, too, so there’s an ancillary benefit you get from it.”
Smith continued: “To host a high school tournament…that’s not a significant amount of revenue, but it brings people to the area. All of it generates traffic that wouldn’t otherwise be here in Zephyrhills. That being said, we do need to be careful spending our money.”
Elsewhere, regarding Seventh Street enhancements, Poe explained this project still needs to be designed.
Poe also noted: “There are some elements that could be removed or phased in to make that very large number more palatable for funding.”
Published January 27, 2021