As any homeowner knows, renovation projects often take longer than expected. Such was the case with the overhaul of the audio and video system in the City Commission chamber on the third floor of Lakeland’s City Hall.
The project to remove and replace a patchwork of 20- to 30-year-old equipment was expected to take about four weeks, but it ended up lasting three and a half months. During the renovations, public meetings were held in the ground-floor conference room of the Lakeland Electric building across the street.
City Manager Shawn Sherrouse announced at an agenda study session Friday that, after many delays, the work is finally complete. Commissioners will return to their stately wood-paneled dais on Monday morning, for the first time since May 1.
The news drew enthusiastic cheers and applause from commissioners and audience members.
“Listen, that has been a gargantuan job,” Mayor Bill Mutz said. “I stick my head in there just about every other day. We are so impressed with the work being done and it’s going to be wonderful.”
“If you’re in the chamber, you can hear just acutely — at any point in time, in any seat that you’re in there — with the new mic systems. Therefore it’s very important that whatever you say is exactly what you want to have everyone in that room hear, because it is a great system,” he added jokingly.
“Yeah, there’s going to be no whispering between them,” City Communications Director Kevin Cook said later, chuckling.
Cook said some of the equipment in the control room dated back to 1993, while other elements were purchased in 2002.
“When we first started recording City Commission meetings it was on VHS tape and we would courier the tape to the cable company for broadcast later that evening,” he said. “Technology has changed drastically. We had cameras that were analog cameras that were trying to run over a digital network. Now we’ve got 4K cameras running over data line.”
The city’s old system was piecemealed together over time by late broadcast producer Mike Mustard, who set it up so a single person could act as director, technical director, camera operator, closed-caption operator and graphics operator.
Cablecast Producer Andrew Gash said the city wanted to keep that functionality, while upgrading sound and picture quality, but “there are only a few systems out there that can handle that particular type of operation.”
Ultimately, the $225,000 contract was awarded to Altamonte Springs-based Encore Broadcast Systems. The project was initially expected to be finished by June 1, however, Cook said work didn’t even begin until June 7 because of supply chain issues.
Once the equipment was installed, a shortage of programmers was another hurdle. Cook said there are only a handful of people who know how to engineer the specialized audio and video equipment so it all “talks to each other.” The vendor had set aside a certain amount of time for the city’s project, but once the schedule got stretched, its programmers had to move on to other jobs and were only available sporadically.
Cook credited Gash with going “above and beyond” — teaching himself Extron and Biamp programming and working multiple nights and weekends for months — to help wrap the project up. Cook couldn’t say how much longer it might have taken without Gash’s efforts, “but it definitely would not be ready for Monday’s commission meeting.”
Both men said the chamber may not look much different to in-person visitors, but it will sound different.
“The first thing that people in the audience are going to notice is the sound system,” Cook said. “We had a sound system that was basically a couple of speakers from the dais pointed out to the audience. Because of the way some of the speakers were set up, if we turned it up too much, we’d have insane feedback.”
The new setup has a distributed sound system in the ceiling tiles. “It’s crisp, it’s clear. If you’re attending in person, that’s the first thing you’re going to notice,” Cook said.
Gash said the city received many phone calls and emails from residents who tuned into broadcasts of meetings, but had a difficult time hearing. For people watching from home, both the sound and picture quality should be greatly improved.
He added that, while it’s great for people to watch commission meetings on Facebook or the city’s cable channel, for the highest-quality output, it’s best to tune into the livestream at Lakelandgov.net/tv which will have 4K resolution instead of standard definition.
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