It’s not the structure, which is sound. It’s not the negligible mold. It’s not even the leaks or the temperamental roof, which can be fixed. It’s the size of the old Flagler County Courthouse and its annex, their combined 49,600 square feet, that had several members of the county’s new and short-lived courthouse committee wondering how it could be viably filled as they walked through the structure Wednesday afternoon.
The Flagler County Commission earlier this month appointed the seven-member committee, with Commissioner Barbara Revels at its head, with a targeted mission: what to do with the old courthouse, now that Bunnell has rejected it. The county is not prepared to continue as its caretaker, as it’s been at a cost of around $1 million (in repairs and maintenance), since the building was emptied in 2007.
The committee has until October to figure out whether tenants rich enough to pay the building’s bills can be found, or whether the structure in whole or in part should be demolished.
“The challenge for you with this building is the size of it,” County Administrator Craig Coffey, who led today’s 70-minute tour, said near the end as he spoke to six of the seven committee members in one of the rooms of the old courthouse. (Revels did not attend: she’s on vacation, and has toured the building before.) “Financially, we can’t do the whole project,” Coffey said, framing the challenge for the committee members: the county could theoretically assume responsibility for part of the building, likely the old courthouse. “But we can’t afford to do both,” including the annex, he said.
Several groups have shown interest in using space at the old courthouse, such as the guardian ad litem program (which assigns advocates to represent children through court proceedings), the Flagler County Historical Society (whose president, Mary Ann Clark, is a member of the committee), the Free Clinic in Bunnell and the Flagler County Health Department. But few people have shown interest in taking over the big annex. Coffey mentioned Office Divvy, the Palm Coast co-location and business incubator, whose owner, Ky Ekinci, told the commission that the company is looking for new spaces and may have $1 million to invest soon. The committee may invite Ekinci to one of its bi-monthly sessions.
But Coffey cautioned committee members against fostering anything less than strong candidates with real plans for the courthouse. “The board is going to want to know it’s a real game plan,” he said, referring to the county commission. (One commissioner, Charlie Ericksen, took the tour today, as did several members of Coffey’s administrative staff.)
The common theme among committee members’ reaction: the building is not the relic they expected, but something much better.
“It’s in a lot better shape than I anticipated it would be, that was a surprise,” Joseph Marotti, a member of the county’s economic development board now doing double duty on the courthouse committee, said. “This new section is usable if they can find a use for it. If it’s financially viable, it’s one thing. If it’s not…” Marotti let the notion trail to the obvious: no occupant that can’t make the proposition work financially will be accepted. “It should be self-sustaining.”
One of the reasons—but not the main reason—Bunnell rejected the building two months ago after taking ownership of it in November was the expense it faced to renovate it, and the questions it raised about the damages to the roof and other issues. On Wednesday, in large part because of what Bunnell itself had done to the inside of the building, the structure looked much cleaner than it had in November, if still clearly in the sort of disrepair most older buildings would be in in their eighth year of vacancy.
“The building is in very good shape considering nobody’s been in it for a number of years,” said John Leinmiller, another member of the committee—he’s spent a career relocating businesses and site-selecting. “It’s in much better shape than I expected. It’s a very solid building.”
But the question kept reverting back to its best uses. “It’s a huge facility that’s going to require a lot of thought to find its best use,” David Alfin, the Realtor and a member of the committee, said at the end of the tour, echoing Marotti’s requirement that the arrangement has to be self-sustaining. “The size is certainly an Achille’s heel, I’d say, but then again for the right concept the size could be a plus, because I’m not aware of another facility that comes close to this size under one roof.”
For Clark, the president of the historical society, taking a walk through the building was more like visiting an old friend than seeing anything new or surprising. She knows the nooks and crannies of the building better than most. She’s been part of every committee, formal and informal, created to help decide the building’s fate since 2007. So she knows the trappings of such committees, and limits of their capabilities.
“My intention is to preserve the courthouse, certainly the historic, the original courthouse,” Clark said. “Of course the annex, it has history too, it’s been there 30 years. That’s history.”
But how to preserve the building and make it financially viable? “I don’t know. I don’t know,” Clark said, mentioning grants and similar avenues. “I don’t know. That’s what this committee is supposed to be about.”
The tour had been an actual meeting of the committee under the usual Sunshine law rules of open meetings-it had been noticed publicly, and Coffey gave the membership a quick briefing on the law before the meeting and at its tail end. The committee next meets July 9 at 2:30 p.m. in the administrator’s conference room on the third floor of the Government Services Building. That and subsequent meetings of the committee are open to the public.