The Bunnell City Commission voted 3-1 Monday to buy the former Heritage charter school building complex at 201 West Moody Boulevard for $600,000. The city projects spending an additional $300,000 to prepare the three-building campus for its permanent offices, including the police department, all of which have been spread through three locations around Bunnell for the past five years.
The vote came at the end of a 75-minute special meeting, urgently called because the Flagler County Commission put Bunnell on notice that if it did not have a location secured by Aug. 1, it would have to start paying the county rent, retroactive to June 1. Bunnell has been occupying space, rent-free, at the Government Services Building—which is jointly owned by the county and the school board—since 2009. The move also means that the city will vacate the spaces it has been occupying at the Atlantis mall on U.S. 1, in property owned by Mark Langello, who was at the meeting Monday.
Commissioners Elbert Tucker, John Rogers and Bill Baxley voted to buy the building. Mayor Catherine Robinson was opposed. Commissioner Bonita Robinson was absent.
The city needed 5,000 square feet. It got more than double that amount of space at the Heritage complex, which last sold in 2004 for $575,000. Its 2014 assessed value is $976,000.
“We are perhaps going to make a decision for the future of Bunnell for a long time to come,” Commissioner Elbert Tucker said. “I’m sure thinking that the Heritage location would be the best for future expansion at a lesser cost.”
The city manager looked at five sites: Heritage; the Alkhoury Plaza, by the Chicken Pantry; space in the Atlantis mall on U.S. 1, where the city has some of its offices; 400 North State Street, or Christ Church on U.S. 1, and the medical center on Moody Boulevard, which belongs to the Canakaris family. Because of cost and other factors, the battle came down to Atlantis and Heritage.
Four people rated the buildings, each picking different one as a first choice, City Manager Larry Williams said. Heritage had the most square footage and the best price per square foot. It also had the best room for public meetings. That site also has the best potential for long-term expansion. “I have spoken to our bond counsel,” Williams said. “I have spoken to Intracoastal Bank which currently has a line of credit available to the city and they are all ready and willing to work with us immediately.”
The church and the Heritage complex have sufficient parking for 42 vehicles. The city needs 22 to 23 spaces for staff. The rest is for visitors.
Going to Atantis would cost the city more in the long run because it doesn’t have meeting space nor space for the police department, either of which would add cost if the city were to seek more space (though the city also can hold its meetings at its old city hall). “You’ve got room to expand considerably in the Heritage, whereas each expansion you’d make in the Atlantis would cost you $165,000 per thousand square foot,” Baxley said. He noted that Heritage also has room for storage, and it’s within walking distance of the courthouse and downtown, which Atlantis is not. “I come up in my calculation with 12 positives for Heritage and eight positives for Atlantis,” Baxley said.
Commissioner John Rogers rated the Heritage building first, and said the site would enable the police department to have enough room for all its needs. “The best bang for the taxpayers’ dollar is the Heritage building,” Rogers said. “We can have our meetings there, we can have all our staff there, [commission] members can have their offices there, we have to meet somebody we can invite them over there and meet.” He added: “I’ve been through it, I walked through it a couple of times, and I think it’s a win-win for the city.”
Robinson wasn’t convinced. “This board trashed flat roofs terribly as far as the courthouse went, and you’re getting ready to consider buying a building that has a flat roof,” the mayor said. “And it’s old.”
Explaining her dissenting vote, she said: “I’m not sure the costs are accurate. We’ve thrown a lot of numbers around, Mr. Baxley has done a lot of subtracting, but I’m not sure if those numbers are accurate, and I’m just a little concerned. We had concerns about the courthouse and I’ve got concerns about what this is going to cost, just because I know about old buildings, and I’ve lived many a day in that old building that looks good now.”
Bunnell had accepted from the county the old county courthouse as its next city hall, only to reject the building once it found out its poor condition, and realized that it could not afford to renovate it and carry its costs year after year. The county took back the building, and is in the same position now. Baxley objected to Robinson’s comparison, saying the costs of the Heritage building are “considerably lower” than the costs to Bunnell the old courthouse entailed.
Only a handful of people addressed the commission as the debate turned into an amicable duel between Langello, the property owner at Atlantis, and Margaret Sheehan-Jones, the commercial Realtor representing the Heritage property.
Langello said the parking at Heritage would be considered unsafe and more parking would need retention ponds (though Williams said the city could forego paving the parking area for now, saving $40,000 and retention pond costs). He also said he would not recommend placing the police department at Atlantis, but that siting it at Heritage would cost money. He was also opposed to the city becoming a commercial landlord.
Jones, who just last August brokered the sale of the old Memorial Hospital building to the county for $1.23 million, said: “The assessed value of this building on the Flagler County Property Appraiser’s website is just under $1 million, $975,000. The selling price of this property is $600,000, making that ratio 1.63. In the world of commercial real estate, a ratio of 1.0 is considered a good value,” and making it the better value among the five choices.
“The real issue,” Jones continued, “is it creates a professional, fully-contained complex dedicated to the city. Obviously buying space now at $30 a foot will save us tremendously in occupancy dollars as we grow. I realize that with an older building you do have items like the roof.” But $76,000 would provide a brand new roof for the first large building, and repairs on the second building. “The building, while it has been empty, has been maintained,” Sheehan-Jones said.
An hour into the meeting, Rogers moved to buy the building. When the mayor questioned the city manager about his numbers, he snapped: “I’m very confident in those numbers.” And Tucker noted that the move-in costs had included build-out costs of $270,000. “We need half the space, we don’t have to build it out,” Tucker said, saving half the build-out costs. “But we do have it for the future.”