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Why Florida postponed its O'Connell Center renovation, and fired its contractor

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Florida's ambitious O'Connell Center renovation was originally awarded to Gainesville's Charles Perry Partners, Inc. — but the story gets rocky from there.

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Florida announced in late February that it was postponing its announced renovations of the O'Connell Center one year, from the period from March 2015 to December 2015 to the same span in 2016.

But we didn't really know why back then — just that, in Florida's words, "an aggressive schedule, escalating costs associated with the rehabilitation project and a change in the construction management team contributed to the decision."

Thanks to fantastic work from The Gainesville Sun's Jeff Schweers in a detailed story on the decision published Saturday, we can decipher that sentence: Florida fired contractor Charles Perry Partners Inc. (CPPI) after the Gainesville firm failed to turn in a budget for the challenging project that Florida could meet.

When the design-development agreement for the O’Connell Center expansion and renovation project was signed in October, the University of Florida’s first choice for construction manager estimated the job would cost $42 million.

Three months later, UF officials experienced sticker shock when Charles Perry Partners Inc. submitted a budget of $64 million — well over the $50 million UF had budgeted for the massive overhaul of its 35-year-old multipurpose building and basketball arena.

After several weeks of negotiations in an attempt to scale back the project to a manageable budget, UF did the rare thing — it fired Gainesville-based CPPI and went with its second choice, the Birmingham, Alabama, construction company Brasfield & Gorrie.

"We couldn’t afford this price and are hoping to get a better price," said Miles Albertson, director of major projects & special programs for UF Planning, Design, & Construction.

Quoting too much more from Schweers would feel like straight-up stealing his fine work, but this is both a rare decision — schools don't generally announce much-anticipated projects, only to delay them, much less fire firms as tied to them as CPPI is to Florida's University Athletic Association — and a rare admission from Florida that some price tags are simply too costly.

The article itself is fascinating, for many reasons. Chief among them:

  • The discrepancy between the things CPPI CEO John Carlson and Florida's Albertson told Schweers. Carlson, hinting that Florida should have considered rising costs, seems to me to be spinning harder than Albertson, who notes that CPPI was never able to meet Florida's budget after a contract was signed.
  • The somewhat puzzling revelation that Florida's feasibility study for the renovation was conducted in 2011, prior to a rebound in construction in both the state and Alachua County (Schweers reports more than $1 billion in construction in Gainesville is underway) that has changed the market for new projects.
  • Florida's unorthodox (according to Carlson) decision to "(hire) an architect and engineer separately from the construction manager, and then (merge) the three contracts into one single design-build contract."

I'm inclined to believe Florida and the UAA over most other organizations — but, more objectively, I'd bet that Florida, which has inarguably been cost-conscious to a degree that draws the ire of those who would spend the UAA's money more aggressively, was working in better faith than CPPI. The renovation of the O'Connell Center would be a taxing project even on an unlimited budget — the timetable requiring that the renovation be completed in just less than 10 months was always going to make it a devilish undertaking. But I also have to think a budget for a construction project that came in at more than 50 percent higher than an original estimate would make nearly any organization skeptical at minimum.

Florida and CPPI have had a long and fruitful relationship, and I don't doubt that the school and firm will work together again in the future, but it seems likely that Florida's dismissal of the firm was probably the right call.

If you want to worry about the future of the project, Schweers has you covered, too.

Since firing CPPI, Florida has tabbed Brasfield & Gorrie, currently managing the brisk construction of the Gators' new indoor practice facility for football, to take over the O'Dome renovation. Schweers writes that Brasfield & Gorrie hasn't delivered a budget estimate, either. And Florida's budgetary limitations haven't changed much, though athletic director Jeremy Foley noted in February that the school had "$60 million earmarked" for the project, a $10 million increase from its original $50 million budget.

So, if Brasfield & Gorrie can't make the numbers work, the possibility of another postponement lingers:

"The hope is Brasfield & Gorrie has relationships with subs to bring in lower prices," Albertson said.

And if not? Said Albertson: "Then we won’t do it next year, either."

Florida's clearly committed to having the O'Connell Center redone. But the crucial questions — "When?" "How?" "For how much?" — seem likely to dog the project from now until its eventual completion.