The Flagler County Administration appears tone-deaf to its own history: It’s been a matter of weeks since the Flagler County Commission unloaded two nightmarish old buildings from its inventory–the Sears building on Palm Coast Parkway and the former Sheriff’s Operations Center on State Road 100.
The purchases were ill-advised, expensive and wasteful. They damaged the county’s reputation and one of them compromised the health of numerous sheriff’s employees. Both were sold at a loss, and the former Sheriff’s Operations Center leaves taxpayers with around $5 million in debt still to pay. A third building purchase, the old Wachovia Bank off Old Kings Road, has been plagued with renovation problems and cost overruns, leaving that building still unused.
Despite that ruinous recent history and a pledge by commissioners, among them Dave Sullivan, the commission chairman, to stay away from old buildings, the Flagler County Commission on Monday will hear a request by its tourism chief to move forward with “due diligence” on the 41-year-old old $1.1 million, 6,600 square foot former Bank of America building on State Road A1A in Flagler Beach, opposite the pier.
The proposal surprised Sullivan, who was not happy about it being made public. He’s in a tight re-election race in barely two weeks, with many already voting: any mention of the county exploring yet another building purchase could revive bitter tastes and cost votes.
“Buying old buildings is not one of my favorite things to do as a commissioner right now in the county,” he said as he openly worried about a proposal tone-deaf to current circumstances. “Given the situation we are in with covid-19 and all the other things going on right now, publicly I just don’t think, even if it’s the greatest deal in the world. I don’t think this is the time to be pushing off on something like this at this point. Not that it’s not a good idea. My concern is that the building has been sitting there for a long time.” He added: “I personally am not going to support a commission direction to proceed along these lines.”
Perhaps recalling similar appeals to urgency with previous purchases–appeals that proved beneficial only to the sellers, never to the county–Sullivan said: “I can’t worry if the Bank of America decides after five years of the building sitting there, nothing happening to it or whatever, however long that was. I don’t know if our decision should be based on their urgency to sell the building.”
The tourism bureau proposal, which could not have made it to the agenda without the approval of County Administrator Jerry Cameron (who owes his job to Sullivan), follows much of the same playbook that preceded the purchases of the three other county buildings: little to no information is being submitted to county commissioners in their back-up package. The due diligence request is being made with great urgency because the bank apparently has a small window when it will accept bids, with a September 25 deadline. And the due diligence phase is being presented as nothing more than that, even though in every previous case, the building purchases were wrapped in similar rhetoric: that the county wasn’t committing to anything–until, of course, the proposal’s momentum had created an implicit commitment out of which commissioners could not back out. That was the case with the Sears building, bought for a similar price even though commissioners had at one point decided they no longer wanted it. The administration told them it was too late. They could not back out.
The agenda item on the commission’s schedule Monday is deceptive: “Potential Future Visitor and Business Location Discussion.” It is accompanied by nothing more than a parenthetical (“submitted by Amy Lukasik, tourism director.”) No background material is included.
In fact, as Lukasik described it to members of the Tourist Development Council board in a zoom meeting earlier this week, it’s not just a general discussion about a visitor center or its location, it’s about exploring buying the specific building for $1 million or more out of the tourism budget’s capital fund, a purchase that would halve the money in that fund.
“We needed to move quickly in the sense of start[ing] to begin due diligence, that meant going in front of the board of county commissioners for their meeting on Monday to begin the conversation with them,” Lukasik said. Last fall, in pre-covid days, the tourism bureau held a goal-setting session. One of its goals was to have a visitor center–a two-story building with the center on the ground floor and offices on the top floor. The bank building fits the bill, Lukasik said.
“When the Bank of America building was announced last week that they were going to open up the sealed bid process,” Lukasik said, “that obviously is a very attractive location. So what we will ask the board of county commissioners on Monday is that if we can have county administration and staff to proceed in doing our due diligence. This is not where we are seeking approval to expect any funds, this is starting the conversation and not it be a surprise as we go further down the road.” She added: “We want to take the time to gather all the information, go inside the building to see if it’s even a good fit, get with finance to run the numbers, that sort of thing.” She then spoke of presenting the item to the tourism board as if it were not that necessary–a surprising assertion that recalled the tactics of her predecessor, Matt Dunn, who often worked out the details of his proposals with then-County Administrator Craig Coffey, minimizing what he’d present to the tourism board, even though the board is responsible for oversight.
“I just out of courtesy could have sent this in an email, but it is part of our strategic plan and I wanted to let you guys know that we’ll be asking the board to move forward with this,” Lukasik said. (In fact, all developments eventually requiring funds from the tourism budget must be approved in recommendation form by the tourism board, with the county commission ratifying the recommendations.)
Lukasik said the tourism bureau’s current offices, at the county airport, cost $47,000 in rent for 2,500 square feet of space. But it was only a few years ago that the county administration was presenting the move into the building at 120 Airport Road as a big win for the county. The administration described the move as giving the tourism office a new home with larger space, rather than depending on renting space from the chamber of commerce (though the ove out of the chamber contributed to the chamber’s eventual demise.) The administration also knew that it wasn’t losing money on rent so much as gaining: since the county owns the building, rent payments out of the tourism fund were essentially a transfer of public funds. (Johnny Lulgjuraj, a member of the tourism board who supports Lukasik’s exploration of the bank building, described the current arrangement as “spending $50,000 to throw away money every single year on rent,” as opposed to ” getting an asset under our county.” In fact, the current building is a county asset, and the rent money remains in public hands.)
Withdrawing the bank building from the tax rolls would also be costly to local governments. The building’s last tax bill generated $19,300 in tax revenue, $5,100 of it for Flagler Beach, $8,000 for the county and $4,300 for the school board. If the county were to acquire it, the tax revenue would be wiped out. In other words, to avoid paying that $47,000 in rent, the county would deny three government entities, itself included, recurring dollars.
Lukasik acknowledged the recent history of county building purchases.
But her proposal drew sharp opposition from Sullivan and Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, a member of the tourism board, and from Pam Walker, another member of the board who was not, however, opposed to pursuing a mere informational track on the building.
“As it is right now I agree with the others, in this time of the pandemic I think for us go to go out and spend the money which is going to get blasted all across the news media, I think would be kind of a negative for us, the tourism department,” Walker said, “even understanding what it is that we do. I think people would be–I know we’re going to get negative press on it, given what’s going on in the world.” She said as long as Lukasik limited herself to getting information, she’d support the idea.
Lulgjuraj saw no issue with seeking information, especially as a matter of supporting Lukasik. “I don’t see if it’s part of our strategic plan why on earth would we try to block it,” he said. “We have all agreed on this last year to start looking into things. I just want to see the information.”
“Just because this is a strategic priority doesn’t mean we have to move forward with it at any given time,” Holland said. “It’s based on how we prioritize those strategic priorities and then how we fund the goals. Due to covid, I think the next couple of years we’re in for some interesting financial times and I think it’s going to change the landscape dramatically with how we move forward with several projects here in our community. I’d really like to see those dollars go toward additional strategic goals that will bring in visitors to our community as much as possible. A visitor center is not an attraction. It’s a place where, yes, you can gather information, and maybe in the interim we can find greater partnerships to add to that.”
Holland said the priority should be to invest capital in such things as better sports fields or other tourism draws to attract more events and visitors who’ll stay in local hotels–not withdraw a property from the tax rolls for a visitor center that would not in and of itself be a draw (no one plans a vacation around visitor centers). She was also concerned about the building’s age. “I’ve been surfing at the Flagler Beach pier since I was 14 years old, and I can tell you that building has been there that long,” Holland said. “Now, I’m not going to divulge my age, however, it’s been a long time. They’ve sustained hurricanes and everything else. I just don’t feel that this is an appropriate expenditure in the capital fund.” Holland was 14 in 1985. The building was built in 1979, according to the Flagler Property Appraiser’s website.
Still, the tourism board voted 4-2 to give Lukasik the go-ahead to seek further information, with Holland and Sullivan opposed. Walker, Lulgjuraj, Stephen Baker and Ryan Crabb voted to approve.
But Sullivan signaled he’d not support the matter when it goes before the commission. “At this point in time I just don’t see us going forward with this, although I think it’s a very good idea to have a visitor center some place in the county,” he said. “And at this time I just think we need to be careful about going public on something like this.”
Update: Shortly after this article published, County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan told FlaglerLive in a phone call that the building item had been removed from Monday’s agenda. But as of Monday morning before the meeting, the item was still on the agenda, as posted in the county’s website. No addendum had been filed.