A recent visit from the state fire marshal’s office has led the county to seek additional funding for the preservation of the Fort Coombs Armory convention center.
Since 2014, the county has spent more than $1.5 million in historic preservation grants and Tourist Development Council (TDC) funds to upgrade the historic Coombs Armory, constructed in 1901.
Improvements over the past three years have included termite treatments, work on wiring and plumbing, installation of central heat and air conditioning, and repairs to the windows, roof and foundation. The goal has been to repurpose the historic building as a convention center.
With the addition of climate control, fees for use of the facility increased and its popularity as a venue for public and family celebrations grew.
Now, the fire marshal has placed a cap on the size of Armory events until the fire prevention system can be brought up to code.
At the time of the Armory’s construction, fire prevention sprinklers were not required. ,In fact, in 1900, two years after the original structure at 4th Street and Avenue D was completed, it burnt to the ground, and was replaced a year later with funding from insurance.
County Planner Mark Curenton said although regular fire inspection of state-owned buildings was required, during the early 20th century, when the Armory was overseen by the county and beginning in 1911 the state, the Armory was not inspected.
When a fire inspector visited Apalachicola last year, he determined that, lacking a sprinkler system, the building is unsafe for large gatherings.
Rather than shut down the popular location, the fire marshal’s office instructed the county to install sprinklers in a timely fashion. In the meantime, the size of gatherings is limited to 299 persons and signs must be posted to that effect.
The county’s parks and recreation department must also station a fire watcher to patrol the premises during all events.
Architect Warren Emo has estimated the cost of a fire suppression system at $300,000. The county applied for funding for the sprinklers from the Florida Historic Preservation Advisory Council but last month the grant was denied.
Curenton said the county is investigating obtaining funds from the TDC, which he said cannot currently supply sufficient money for the entire project. He said it may also be possible to get funding from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but the application process would take several years.
At the July 18 county meeting, Commissioner Noah Lockley said it’s important to find a source for funding soon, or the fire marshal’s office could shut activities in the Armory down.
The building is named for James Percy Coombs who was active in the early 1900s in the local Franklin Guards, for whom the Armory was built. Coombs commanded the local company, and served as lieutenant colonel in World War I and as mayor of Apalachicola.