Hamilton County got its first glimpse Wednesday of plans for a nearly $13 million animal shelter for the Humane Educational Society.
If all goes according to plan, construction on the new facility could begin within the next three months, project architect Bob Franklin, of Franklin Architects in Chattanooga, told the Hamilton County Commission. Once started, the facility likely would be ready to open within a year from that, he said.
"It is one of the finest animal shelters in the South," he said, adding that it won't waste taxpayer or donor money.
The project calls for a 31,550-square-foot animal shelter on just under 8 acres on Randolph Circle near Bonny Oaks Drive and Highway 153. It would house up to 138 dogs and 166 cats. The cost is estimated at $10.5 million to $12.5 million, Franklin said.
It would replace the current 119-year-old facility on North Highland Avenue, once an orphanage.
Commissioners in November approved $10 million toward the new shelter. The remaining funds are expected to be raised by the shelter through donations.
On Wednesday, District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd questioned the price tag. He estimated that at $13 million, the cost to build the shelter would be around $350 per square foot.
"It seems like a lot of money" when you look at the needs of local schools, he told Franklin.
Boyd, who was the lone commissioner to not vote in favor of the funding last year, had requested an update on the project during last week's meeting.
Franklin said Wednesday his team would work to bring down costs, but he pointed out that a large portion of the money is tied up in mechanical systems, including sanitation and odor management, which can help prevent disease.
After the meeting, Boyd talked again about the project, referring to comments made later in the meeting by former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield. Littlefield had come to the meeting to ask the commission to consider using funds from the hotel-motel tax to help with the homelessness problem.
"Paying $350 a square foot for the animal shelter is twice what it costs to build a school," Boyd said. "I couldn't escape the irony of hearing that we are spending $350 a square foot for dogs and cats and then heard Mayor Littlefield comes up and tells us that there is no money for the homeless. It makes no sense."
The shelter is now housing 325 animals, director Bob Citrullo said during the meeting.
The county pays the society $620,970 annually, one-third of its $1.9 million budget. The nonprofit organization, which raises more than $1 million in private donations annually, took in 4,929 animals in 2017. Seventy-two percent of those came from unincorporated Hamilton County and the rest from smaller municipalities.
During Wednesday's meeting, Franklin said the design puts the animals' needs first and focuses on eliminating several factors — including hunger and thirst; pain and disease; and fear and distress — while providing a safe place for normal behavior. The ultimate goal, he said, is to make a space that will help animals get adopted.
Ways in which the facility will address animals' needs include providing a temperature-controlled environment that is clean and waste-free, he said.
Franklin also said the new facility will limit sound. The idea is that by compartmentalizing the animals, it will cut down on barking, which creates fear and stress, he said.
And there will be two entrances — one for those looking to adopt and one for animal drop-offs — in an effort to separate the "happy" side from the "sad" side, he said.
He added that the building, while state of the art, won't be award-winning architecture, but it will be very practical. It will also include areas for growth. As the county's population grows, so will the number of animals needing homes, he said.
"I have no doubt that this facility is going to be first class and it's going to be functional to serve that population," said District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey.
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger also praised the project, saying it's an example of public-private partnerships helping the community.
"Job well done," he said.
Contact staff writer Meg Scarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6260. Follow her on Twitter @emdash13.