Wringing every last drop out of the old, before ringing in the new

Seacoast Utility Authority replaces aging headquarters with $21 million campus.

When you turn on your faucet, you expect water to come gushing out. When you flush your toilet, you expect the water to go swirling away.

In Palm Beach Gardens, Lake Park, North Palm Beach and Juno Beach, that has meant relying on the Seacoast Utility Authority, housed for decades in its low-slung, aging headquarters next to the water plant on Hood Road. 

Seacoast remains, but after 40 years its headquarters are gone.  

In April, the utility started in 1955 by Lake Park and Palm Beach Gardens founder John D. MacArthur completes its move into a stylish series of blue buildings accented by brown stone that nearly doubles its space, protects against hurricanes and modernizes meeting rooms, warehouse space and labs. 

The $21.5 million project, marked by the late August demolition of the old headquarters, is paid for without new debt by the utilities’ 50,800 customers through their monthly bills.

Rim Bishop, longtime director of the Seacoast Utility Authority, stands in the board room of the authority’s new $21.5 million headquarters on Hood Road. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

The new buildings, covering  more than 50,000 square feet, are the legacy of Rim Bishop, Seacoast’s director since the four cities and the county banded together in 1988 to buy the system for $65 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

But that’s just a small part of the 69-year-old director’s legacy, said Bob Weisman, the retired county administrator who has served as the county’s representative on the Seacoast board since 1988.

“It’s an understatement to say the new office is his legacy. The way Seacoast has run over the last 30 years is his legacy,” Weisman said.

Architect Rick Gonzalez, whose West Palm Beach firm REG Architects designed the new building in what he called a contemporary, modern style “with a little bit of rustic thrown in,” described the old building as basically an 80-foot long double-wide.

That’s not quite how Bishop sees the 1980 building Seacoast inherited when it bought the system. 

“Rather than a double-wide, I’d call it manufactured housing,” said Bishop, who says the building was marred in recent years by leaky roofs and windows and a corroded steel skeleton. “We got 40 years out of a building that was temporary.”

The old 14,000-square-foot admin building remained standing while the three new buildings rose behind it.

“We laid it out like a campus,” Gonzalez said, referring to a design that seems prescient in the COVID era with outdoor courtyards between buildings where workers can take breaks or eat meals. “Who would have thought that COVID would have hit us.”

Three-building campus

Lights and baffles overhang the reception area at the new Seacoast Utility Authority headquarters on Hood Road. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

The front building, with its gleaming white hallways and administrative and engineering offices, is where customers can go to pay their bills. Blue and white baffles hanging over the reception desk, combined with X-shaped lighting fixtures give a playful, modern impression.

A slick glass-walled board room, where the public can attend the board’s monthly meetings, awaits behind the reception desk, replacing a converted training room in the back of the operations center on the old campus.

Across a courtyard, the operations building houses a training room with six, 70-inch flat screen TVs and the water treatment laboratory.

A third high-ceilinged garage-like building will be home to fleet maintenance and a parts warehouse.

Weisman pointed out that the headquarters project, constructed by Hedrick Brothers Construction of West Palm Beach, came years after Seacoast invested in its water treatment plant next door, putting a priority on operations even though the office needs were great.

“The meeting rooms were inadequate. Public access was inadequate. Security was hard.” 

Responding to complaints

Even with the new water plant, completed in 2014, Bishop faces complaints about water quality but he moves proactively to respond.

When a customer started a conversation in March on the website Nextdoor.com by blaming Seacoast for calcium buildup that clogged his plumbing valves, Bishop defused the issue by sending a water quality expert to reach out.

“Seacoast is now going to run lab tests on the water supply and report back to me,” the homeowner wrote on Nextdoor. “Seacoast has always been very responsive to any issues regarding their utility in the past.”

By the end of the postings, which drew more than 70 comments, the homeowner had grown into an ally, suggesting to his Nextdoor followers — at Seacoast’s request — that if they ever replace a stuck valve, they should save it for Seacoast’s inspection.

The 1980 administrative building at Seacoast Utility Authority, torn down in 2020 to make way for its $21.5 million replacement. (Contributed by Rim Bishop)

Typically, Bishop says, water blockages are caused by cheap household pipes that degrade and clog or problems with water heaters that shoot bits of plastic or aluminum into the system. 

But valve replacement is not uncommon. 

If you don’t turn the valves below your sink every year or so, don’t be surprised 10 or 15 years later if they stick, he said. A stuck valve can be a real problem because if you twist too hard, the valve can break off, releasing an unrelenting torrent. 

As for taste, another subject prompted by the valve complaint on Nextdoor, Bishop points out that in a recent Southeast Florida contest hosted by an industry trade group, a panel picked Seacoast’s water as “Best Tasting.”

Inside the fleet management garage on March 25 at the new Seacoast Utility Authority Hood Road headquarters. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Retiring debt early saves $41 million

But he’s also proud of rates that have not undergone a major increase for a dozen years. And a $60 million budget that will allow the authority to retire its debt from the $75 million water plant bond issue by 2024, which is 15 years ahead of schedule.

That will save customers $41 million, he said.

Among the ways that’s been achieved: the authority has fewer employees now (128) than it did in November 1986 (144), when Bishop began working there. That’s even as the customer base grew by 40 percent, Bishop said. 

And once that debt is put to bed, it will mean more money flowing to projects to maintain the system that covers 65 square miles, Bishop said. 

Among work ongoing now is replacement of water and sewer pipes along Northlake Boulevard between Alternate A1A and U.S. 1 and water main replacement in the Cabana Colony neighborhood north of the Gardens Mall. 

On the sewage side, one of Bishop’s first moves as director was to consolidate three treatment plants into one west of town on land where Mirasol ultimately would be built. 

A photograph in Seacoast Utility Director Rim Bishop’s office captures the old water tank, right, and the new one that replaced it. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

While utilities typically pump treated wastewater thousands of feet below the surface, Seacoast sends most of its treated wastewater to irrigate nearby golf courses and maintain proper water levels in nearby lakes, a system that helped it win a recent Florida Water Environment Association’s “Reuse System of the Year Award.”  

Water and sewer came first, Bishop said. He recalled snapping a picture of the old administration building before Hurricane Jeanne hit in 2004, fearing the building would be gone when he returned. 

But erecting a hurricane-hardened replacement had to wait.  

“We went after the actual water and sewer production and treatment first and that’s the heart of our operation,” he said. “Then it was time to go after the old steel buildings.”

Who controls Seacoast?

The Seacoast Utility Authority is governed by a five-member board made up of city managers from the four cities and a representative of the county. Voting power is based on water use: 

Palm Beach Gardens 60%
Palm Beach County20%
North Palm Beach 12%
Lake Park6%
Juno Beach2%
SOURCE: Seacoast Utility Authority

© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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