City Council members want some answers before they commit to using city funds to renovate the historic Central Fire Station.
The structure — Lawton’s first stand-alone fire station — housed active fire crews from its opening in 1930 until spring 2021, when firefighting crews moved to the new Lawton Public Safety Complex. That new site holds the official designation of Fire Station No. 1, while Central retains that name and houses the department’s top administrative personnel.
That continues to be the plan, Deputy Fire Chief Brent Baggett said. He said the department’s long-standing idea is to continue to house the fire chief, deputy chief and assistant chiefs and their administrative staff in Central, while also adding fire marshal and training divisions. The fire marshal’s office is housed in an old station at 1701 SW 17th, while the training division splits time between that building and Great Plains Technology Center’s Building 800.
Architects already are working on rough designs to convert the old dorm space on Central’s top floor into office space, Baggett said. The bay area on the ground floor will remain intact; fire officials haven’t made any definite plans for that area yet, but have discussed making part of the historic structure a fire museum.
Baggett said there are other things to consider about Central and its continued use. For example, a rescue boat and a brush truck are stored in the surplus space the building offers, because the department lacks sufficient storage space. What the building doesn’t have is full-time fire crews.
“For the most part, there are no responses out of the building,” Baggett said.
That fact bothers Ward 8 Councilman Randy Warren, who asked whether the city could actually use $700,000 of ad valorem revenue remaining from the 2012 Capital Improvements Program (CIP) for Central’s renovation if that building is not a primary response station. It’s one of the questions he and other council members want answered before they decide about funding the renovation.
Warren also asked whether the fire department’s administrative functions would be better housed in Lawton City Hall. The city is ready to launch a $7.57 million renovation project that will finish converting three unused floors to office space as part of a plan to concentrate as many City of Lawton offices in the building as possible.
“The idea is for all offices to be in this building,” Warren said of Lawton City Hall, about a plan to provide a “one stop shop” for citizens needing city services while lessening city operating costs with fewer buildings. “I don’t see us saving money doing this (Central renovation).”
Warren said he is concerned about whether the renovation plans can be fully covered by remaining CIP funds (architects say yes, city administrators said). Ward 2 Councilman Kelly Harris said the city also will save money by moving out of the old fire station at Southwest 17th and West Lee Boulevard; Baggett said someone already is interested in that building.
Deputy City Manager Dewayne Burk, who also is a retired Lawton fire chief, said while the original plan in 2012 was to expand Central by building an addition onto the station, that plan was abandoned in favor of moving firefighting crews to the new public safety complex. He said the work needed to modernize Central to continue operating as a fire station would have been substantial, which also influenced the decision.
Expansion plans discussed then would not be possible today, not without affecting the building’s status on the National Register of Historic Places. That designation, bestowed on Central in 2016, means nothing can be done to the outside of the building to change its original appearance. Retaining originality is why plans to restore windows to the west side of the top floor are possible, because windows existed on that floor before they were bricked in, Burk said.
Warren said he continues to be concerned about whether ad valorem taxes can be spent to renovate the building because it is no longer a functional fire station. Burk and Baggett said there is the ability to respond to fires out of the complex, which officials say meets the intent of the law that specifies ad valorem revenue must be spent on a fire response complex.
“We don’t run fires out of there,” Warren said.
That’s why council members agreed with Warren’s request for a formal legal opinion on that issue, as well as ADA concerns, whether there is space in Lawton City Hall to house fire administrative offices, and how downtown historic overlay rules apply.
Ward 4 Councilman George Gill acknowledged Central’s place on the National Register of Historic Places, but said he thought the plan was to sell Central to someone for office space. Gill, who has a construction background, said the building “is very substantial,” in terms of how it was built, and contractors could easily modernize plumbing and electrical.
“The building has a lot of flexibility,” he said.