Saturday, June 3, 2023

After multiple delays, MLK Center expansion to break ground in September

The city plans to begin construction on the MLK Center in September, with a roughly 12- to 15-month timeline for completion. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Residents have been waiting since 2016 for improvements to a community center near downtown Wilmington. City council received an update Monday that construction will finally begin later this year on the MLK Center.

A neighborhood gym and athletic facility, the center offers after-school activities, and with the expansion will have more than 11,000 additional square feet. New additions were approved in a $30 million Parks Bond seven years ago; the MLK project is one of seven out of 15 projects still in the works.

READ MORE: With 15 unfinished projects on the books, city considers postponing capital plan

It’s been delayed at least twice since announced. A stop-work order was issued in August 2021 after Sawyer Sherwood and Associates Architecture raised concerns to the city about the proposed design plan. 

Getting the issues cleared up took $25,000 and delayed the project’s timeline. Initially, MLK Center work was anticipated to begin three to five years after 2017. By 2021, the city was targeting finalized designs by October that year.

During a city budget workshop at the end of January, community services director Amy Beatty said design plans for the MLK Center were at 60% completion. Hart told council Monday the plans should be 100% by the beginning of April.

Renovations were estimated at $6.6 million, but now are expected to be less expensive. Last August, city staff addressed total project expenses to be more than its $4 million budget. Less than six weeks ago, the city anticipated a $2.5-million gap in funding.

Monday, project manager Matt Hart gauged the project has reduced to $6.2 million, with the funding gap closing to $1.8 million.

“Market volatility came down a bit; price of materials have stabilized,” Hart told council.

He added the team looked at different construction materials to reduce the price and had a third-party team review plans to provide suggestions on constructability. For example, the engineering team opted for a different method for building the veneer walls.

Still, overall costs are more than triple the originally proposed $1.83 million in 2016.

As the design process moves toward the construction phase, staff will solidify materials and methods, Hart told Port City Daily of the cost reduction.

“Less design contingency is also held within the budget when a project moves forward from 30% design development to 90% construction documents,” he said.

Within eight weeks, Hart anticipates releasing a request for construction proposals, with work beginning by September.

“This could still come down in cost based on what the market conditions are for construction,” Mayor Bill Saffo said. “The market is changing every single day.”

According to the Associated Builders and Contractors, construction prices fell in December as inflation began to ease; yet, overall prices are still up nearly 5% from 2021 year. It also reports the supply chain is improving, yet “the economy is not slowing nearly as quickly as predicted.”

Hart explained staff is still retaining a 10% contingency to cover overages.

Renovations for the MLK Center, located at 401 S. Eighth St., include adding 11,275 square feet of space to include a new gym, a lobby, upgraded restrooms, office space, storage for equipment and a new floor plan.

The improvements also include adding a commercial kitchen for $900,000. Council member Kevin Spears, who has been vocal about wanting to see the project come to fruition, requested design renderings for the kitchen.

Hart said he could only provide design plans at the moment, showing the layout and equipment — including walk-in fridge and freezer, several stoves and other refrigerators positioned around the perimeter of the room.

“That’s a really integral piece,” Spears told Hart Monday. “I don’t want that to be sprung on me and we have to do a reactive type thing. I would like to see progression as we go along, so if I have any concern, I can express it.”

The upgraded kitchen is intended to enhance job opportunities through food service training and culinary classes as well as provide a space for start-up culinary businesses.

Spears also pushed staff to update the community on the progress. The city held a public meeting Feb. 15 and Hart said about 50 people attended and were given the option to opt in to receive continued updates by email.

Construction should take 12 to 15 months and the new estimated completion date is between September and November 2024.

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