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January 07, 2008
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Calif. county envisions a 'public safety mecca'

6,000 law enforcement officials a year from across the state would use facility

By Ryan Huff STAFF WRITER
Conta Costa Times

CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, Calif. — Somewhere along Highway 4, where munitions were shipped off to war decades ago, Rich Grace envisions a public safety mecca.

It is on those Concord Naval Weapons Station grounds that the Contra Costa assistant fire chief and Sheriff's Department officials want to build a $200 million state-of-the-art training center for firefighters and law enforcement officers.


(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
And they hope the Navy will deed them the 120 acres they need through a military program that allows government agencies to obtain old base property for free or at a discount.

"It's a unique opportunity to acquire land centrally located in our county, and that's why we want to take advantage of it," Grace said. "If we can build a joint structure and realize some economies of scale, then it just makes sense to build a world-class training center."

While Bay Area public safety agencies have a handful of small training facilities, the region lacks a one-stop shop for the bulk of training needs. A recent county survey shows nearly 6,000 law enforcement officials a year from across the state would use this facility -- paying fees to the county and boosting the economy.

The county's proposal is one of 10 that various government agencies and nonprofit groups have pitched for the weapons station, a 5,000-acre property for which the city of Concord is now in the midst of planning new uses.

The Emergency Responders Complex, which the county prefers to build between Clyde and Highway 4, would provide training facilities replicating virtually any public safety incident.


(AP Photo/Amy Sinisterra)
A machine-operated stream would allow firefighters to save people in fast-moving water. Officers would practice their enforcement driving skills on paved and off-road tracks. A five-story training tower would have a dual purpose -- one day firefighters could extinguish high-rise flames, the next day a SWAT team could use it to practice rappelling.

The complex also would include an indoor shooting range, police K-9 training site, and props to simulate plane crashes, trench fires, chemical spills and collapsed buildings. The county would plan to move its Fire District headquarters, fire dispatch center and a backup emergency operations center to the site.

Drawing up the facility's wish list is the easy part. Finding a way to pay for it as the county struggles with long-range financial planning is the hard part.

Even if the Navy gives 120 acres to Contra Costa County for free through a public benefit conveyance, construction costs would add up to $203 million. This comes at a time when supervisors are trying to devise ways to pay a $2.6 billion bill -- twice the amount of the county's annual budget -- for retired workers' medical expenses over the next 30 years.

The training complex is not an all-or-nothing proposal and could be scaled back if funding comes up short, said Supervisor Susan Bonilla of Concord.

"You want to include everything you could possibly want in your proposal," she said. "Then we can make some choices of what we can afford. This facility will (ensure) that our own local law enforcement personnel are receiving the very best level of training."

To fund the Emergency Responders Complex, the Fire District would look to sell its headquarters in Pleasant Hill, a 40-year-old training center in Concord and a vacant 12-acre parcel along Highway 4 in Antioch. Those sales would net between $22 million and $27 million, according to a consultant's report.

The county would potentially look to bonds, federal Homeland Security grants and developer impact fees to cover the rest of the construction and equipment costs, said Dale Varady, a retired Contra Costa sheriff's captain working on the project.

The Sheriff's Department also would save money by ending a lease for its 2.5-acre training site in downtown Pittsburg, he said.

The county's Emergency Responders Complex is competing with nine other proposals for free or discounted land at the weapons station. Some other ideas include a Cal State East Bay campus, a 3,000-acre regional park and 210 residential units for the homeless.

The Concord City Council plans to make recommendations as early as this summer, with the Navy holding the ultimate authority to agree to all, some or none of the proposals.

"If we could get a site (for the Emergency Responders Complex) and it works out, I think it would be advantageous to the public safety community," said Concord Mayor Bill Shinn, a retired sheriff's commander. "I've got 100 percent support for it."


Copyright 2008 Contra Costa Newspapers

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