WALKER — With the recent completion of the Safe House in Sidney Hutchinson Park the city has acquired a new venue that allows for expanded athletic programs while also serving as a center for emergency personnel and communications and survival equipment during emergencies such as hurricanes, other types of severe storms and flooding.

The Safe House was constructed with funds provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency accompanied by a matching grant from the City of Walker. In the event of an emergency or special disaster, the facility can be manned by personnel that could include professionals from the Livingston Parish Office of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness; the National Guard; local elected officials; and law enforcement, fire and emergency medical personnel. The building, on the southeastern corner of the park, was constructed to withstand extremely severe weather.

“Our Safe House is certified to stand up to winds of 185 miles-per-hour. It was built extremely well, and we know that it is the safest place to be in the City of Walker. The planners, architects and builders of this special building thought of just about every possible concern when creating this unique building. For example, the glass in the building is three inches thick. … Almost nothing can penetrate that glass. This building is really something special,” said Mayor Jimmy Watson.

The building, which cost $3.4 million, was designed in such a way that it can also accommodate basketball, volleyball and pickleball courts. Walker Chief of Staff Jamie Etheridge said that during the planning phase of the building process, city officials decided that the facility could be used as a sports center when not in use in an emergency.

“When we decided that we wanted to use the building for basketball and other sports, the architects said that the roof would have to be raised by about 10 feet and that the city would have to bear that cost of that change in plans. We were happy to do that because this allows us to use the building 365 days of the year. In addition to sports events, this facility could also be used for community meetings and exhibitions. This is a positive plus for our city,” he said.

Among the features that sets the building apart from every other structure in Walker is a 1,000 gallon tank that holds potable water that can help sustain emergency workers for an extended period of time. The facility is also equipped with a huge generator that was modified to run on natural gas. “Walker has a very large, extensive natural gas system so it only made sense that our generator run on natural gas. We don’t have to store diesel or gasoline for the generator as do some other safe houses,” the mayor said. The generator room was soundproofed so the machine isn't heard outside the room, Etheridge said.

Bathrooms in the building are equipped with stainless steel sinks and toilets and have showers that can be used by emergency personnel.

Watson said that in the event of a natural disaster, personnel who will man the facility can quickly move into the building bringing cots, food, and the specialized equipment needed to oversee speedy and efficient management of a crisis. “Communications are especially important during a crisis and personnel in the office of Mark Harrell, the GOHSEP director for Livingston Parish, can move in here and set up a safe communications network. We can constantly keep operations going even if power to the rest of city is shut down,” Watson said.

At the same time, Watson and Etheridge are looking forward to equipping the building for recreational purposes. The mayor said that sufficient room is available for several basketball courts, a volleyball court and space for pickleball. He said that basketball courts will be marked off, wheeled bleachers that can be easily moved and stored and other furnishings will be provided in the space at the heart of the facility. A snack bar could also be added in the building’s lobby area, he said.

“We have 15,000 square feet to work with, so there is plenty of room to make this into something that can be a multiuse facility. We are only now envisioning just how many different ways we can use this great building. It is certainly a big addition to Sydney Hutchinson Park,” Watson said.

The building was designed by Gassaway, Gassaway and Bankston, architects, of Hammond, and built by Dumite Construction LLC, of Baton Rouge. Construction took about a year.