No one will be spending the night in 2014 at the Biden Center in Cape Henlopen State Park.
Because of safety and handicapped accessibility issues, state officials have decided not to take reservations for events requiring overnight stays, although daytime events and meetings will continue to take place in 2014.
“This will allow time for us to plan,” says Matt Chesser, an environmental program administrator in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control's Planning, Preservation and Development Section. “We have a window of opportunity to be as creative as we want. We want to be able to re-energize the building for the next 20 years.”
The greatest deficiencies at the facility, built in 1962 as a Naval training facility, involve safety and accessibility. “It was built at a time when they were not concerned with those issues,” Chesser said.
While Coast Artillery Corps use of Fort Miles during World War II is well documented, Naval use of part of the facility is not as well known.
He said it's estimated it would take about $1.3 million to make all of the renovations outlined in a detailed report of state park facilities. Chesser said the report is a wish list – including mechanical, HVAC and electrical upgrades – that would upgrade the facility for the next two decades.
He said it's unclear what extent renovations would take until state officials meet to discuss the report and look at funding options. However, at some point in 2014, Chesser said, the center will be closed for renovations. The scope of work and timetable has yet to be determined.
“The building needs a total overhaul. The question is do we do one major renovation or a series over time,” he said.
Chesser said the building needs an elevator for access to the second floor as well as many other smaller accessibility improvements. As far as accessibility upgrades, he said, the building could probably be grandfathered as it stands today. “But we want to go above and beyond in compliance,” he said.
Chesser said most of the safety issues center around fire-escape routes. Fire escapes have been added to the ends of the building, but the fire-escape routes do not comply with current building code because there are not clear exits from the rooms. Guests would have to pass through meeting rooms to reach exits. “The old floor plan has issues,” Chesser said.
The building also does not have a sprinkler system.
In addition, air conditioning units in most windows would make egress via windows almost impossible during a fire. Switching over to central air conditioning would alleviate that concern, Chesser said.
Chesser said energy efficiency improvements are needed. Plagued with high energy bills, the building has very little insulation, the windows are outdated and the boilers are more than 20 years old.
The facility was purchased in 1998 by the state from the Naval Reserves. The spacious center once served as military training center and was converted to a conference, meeting facility and events center. Named for then U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, who was instrumental in securing state park land, the center has five meeting rooms capable of seating as many as 260 people. The center also has a kitchen, dining room and overnight dormitory-style rooms for 53 people.
The center is used by several groups as a meeting place and also serves as host to several events throughout the year, including the Saturday, Sept. 7 Chocolate Tasting, sponsored by the Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park.
Chesser said the center has become a favorite location for events such as family reunions. “Many families come back every year. We will try to accommodate them using the youth camps,” he said.