Trees were felled and backhoes began tearing up asphalt this week next to the Fresno County Library downtown as construction began on First 5 Fresno County's controversial $15 million headquarters.
The three-story, nearly 44,000-square-foot building will include a child-care center, classroom space and a community conference room in addition to First 5's administrative offices.
Construction is expected to take 10 months to a year.
"There were a lot of moving parts; there were significant challenges on multiple fronts," said Kendra Rogers, First 5 Fresno County's executive director. "We are very excited for the children of Fresno County who will have a place that represents a beacon of hope and light for them in this community."
But there was also plenty of both controversy and uncertainty in the final six months leading up to the start of construction.
The controversy came from three of the five Fresno County supervisors, who said the building was an unnecessary extravagance and waste of money that would ultimately hurt -- not help -- the children who First 5 was set up to serve.
And that hasn't changed, even though construction has started.
"It's what I've been saying all along," said Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, who has been a leading critic of the building. "They made a decision to cut children's services and programs and build themselves a fancy building."
As First 5 officials fended off the relentless criticism, construction bids for the project in September came in higher than expected.
First 5 had used a professional cost estimator to help put together a construction budget, which pegged the costs to be somewhere between $9.9 million and $10.3 million.
But of the six bids submitted, the lowest came in $2.6 million above that estimated range.
All the bids were rejected and the organization scaled down the building to get it within the original cost estimate. It was then re-bid, and in November commissioners awarded a $9.48 million contract to Durham Construction Co. The Clovis company was the lowest of six bidders.
Although construction is the bulk of the cost, the $15 million total for the building includes land purchase, architect charges, furniture purchases and fees for federal New Market Tax Credits, a critical part of the project's financing, Rogers has said.
The New Market Tax Credits -- and making sure they were in line, especially after the project was re-bid -- were some of the moving parts of which Rogers spoke.
First 5 Fresno County itself is an independent agency, funded by California's tobacco tax, that seeks to bolster health and education programs for families and their children from birth to age 5.
Poochigian and fellow Supervisor Judy Case McNairy have pointed out that the agency's budget is shrinking -- from $22 million in 2006 to around $11 million this year -- and that instead of constructing a new building, the money should be directed to children.
But First 5 supporters have said the new building is critical to the agency's continuing mission, which must evolve as the budget shrinks. The headquarters, they said, will serve as a central location to educate people First 5 serves, and they then can disseminate that information across Fresno County.
The building is being constructed on First 5-owned property that until Monday was a parking lot along Tulare Street, between N and O streets, adjacent to the Fresno County Library.
As part of the construction, 11 trees were cut down, but another six were saved and, in the end, 14 new ones will be planted -- a net gain of three trees, Rogers said.
But the start of construction doesn't mean the First 5 controversy is anywhere near subsiding.
An item on the agency is on the Jan. 14 supervisors' agenda, and Poochigian said she sees it as an "opportunity to do more than tweak" the First 5 ordinance.
"It will be back in front of us and we're going to be looking seriously at the ordinance and potentially making some changes," she said.
What exactly those will be is unknown. In the past, however, there has been talk that supervisors may try to bring the agency back under direct county control. So far, however, a majority of the board hasn't supported that step.
Currently, supervisors appoint the agency's commission members.
As for the building, an official ground breaking is scheduled Jan. 17. Among those scheduled to attend are Supervisor Henry R. Perea and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
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