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Building for Past and Future Growth

Aiken Showcases New Department of Public Safety Headquarters

In 2016, the City of Aiken commissioned a space needs analysis of its 1970s-era Department of Public Safety building. The analysis confirmed that the physical space in the public safety building had become inadequate for the growth experienced by the department over the decades. It was an issue that was causing operational and morale concerns.

Charles Barranco, chief of the Aiken Department of Public Safety, showcased the department's new headquarters
Charles Barranco, chief of the Aiken Department of Public Safety, showcased the department's new headquarters for the members of the SC Community Development Foundation.

"We literally had folks in closets," Charles Barranco, chief of the department, said. In the hallways, "you couldn't pass each other without turning sideways."

This began a process that eventually led Aiken City Council to convert a shuttered grocery store into the new headquarters. Now, the J. Carrol Busbee Headquarters has become a showcase for adaptively reusing a property to effectively meet the needs of a large city department. When the South Carolina Community Development Association met in North Augusta and Aiken in May, one of the attendees' stops was a tour of the new public safety headquarters, led in part by Barranco.

Aiken's Department of Public Safety combines police and fire protection services, and its new facility reflects that with space for police and fire functions, a courtroom capable of serving as meeting space, an emergency operations center and a dispatch center. The side of the building associated with firefighting functions has the fire engine bay, a day room, individual bunk rooms, and a bell mounted outside. The bell, in service for the City of Aiken for more than a century already, was once used to summon firefighters. At 46,000 square feet, the public safety building is nearly double the size of the previous location.

Work began in 2018 with stripping the building down to exposed trusses. This year, the various functions of the department moved into the space over time. On March 31, Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon cut the ribbon. The building's namesake, J. Carrol Busbee, became the first director of Aiken's Department of Public Safety in 1970, having served as fire chief prior to that.

City of Aiken Department of Public Safety Headquarters before

City of Aiken Department of Public Safety Headquarters after
(Before and after) The City of Aiken transformed a shuttered supermarket into the new
J. Carrol Busbee Headquarters for its Department of Public Safety. Photos: City of Aiken.

Barranco noted that the new location substantially increases the space they have available and the building includes unused space, allowing for the future growth of the department. The project cost more than $10 million, but it was an amount significantly less than what upgrading the existing location would have cost. Repurposing an existing building has benefits beyond saving the cost of constructing the structure's shell; for example, the stormwater infrastructure for the property was already in place. The former headquarters location now has a new life as a substation.

"It's not grandiose," Barranco said of the new headquarters. "It's clean, it has some space to it, it's neat, and it's functional."

The project made use of a grocery store that became commercially unviable when a new bypass shifted traffic. While the department's relocation closed out a significant property vacancy for Aiken, it also achieved another purpose — it is located directly across the street from an apartment complex that had been known for crime.

Those apartments were the scene of the line-of-duty death of Master Public Safety Officer Scott Richardson in 2011, one of Aiken's fallen public safety officers, whose sacrifice is memorialized in the lobby of the new headquarters. The Department of Public Safety moving in next door to the complex has greatly helped that community, Barranco said.

"Our call volume has gone to just about zero across the street," he said.

A later session at the SCCDA conference covered repurposing structures, and Aiken has several such developments in the works, like the Aiken Mall and old Aiken County Hospital. Aiken Assistant City Manager Kim Abney discussed the financial details of the Department of Public Safety project, noting that the city changed its procurement ordinance to allow for things like a design-build contract. The contracted developer, she said, brought a plan to City Council showing a building plan and its price.

To help finance the project, the city created a nonprofit, the Aiken Public Facilities Corporation, made up of members including the mayor, local residents, attorneys and former developers, among others. That corporation issued installment purchase revenue bonds with low interest rates on a 20-year note.

Barranco highly recommended hiring a project manager for a build like the Aiken Department of Public Safety, and he discussed how staff was involved in the design process.

From the beginning, the department knew it did not want the project to have the appearance of a former grocery store and nothing about the finished product is visually connected to a retail purpose. Barranco noted the installation of more than 40 windows, something not typically found on any part of a grocery store other than its front facade. The planning process included a careful look at operations to see how to improve efficiency — for example, placing an area for writing police reports next to where the officers' supervisors are located.

The public safety department outgrowing its previous building was a significant reason why the project became necessary and Barranco noted that future growth figured into the plan for the new space — 30 percent of the office space was not immediately put to use.

"We were very fortunate to be able to do that and have the space to do it," he said.