The advisory committee the Flagler County Commission established in June to study the fate of the old county courthouse is recommending against sale or demolition of the building and in favor of redeveloping the structure for public and non-profit tenants. That leaves the county on the hook for maintaining the building as it has since 2007—at a cost of at least $70,000 a year, not including recurring repairs—until it finds viable tenants, a burden commissioners have been reluctant to carry on.
Should the county opt to sell or demolish any portion of the 50,000 square foot building, the committee is recommending that sale or demolition be limited to the 36,000 square foot annex, built in 1982, while preserving the more historic portion of the building, which was built in 1927.
The seven-member committee, chaired by County Commissioner Barbara Revels, declared the building “in good condition,” and that “based upon the interest in the facility during an open house and through committee outreach to businesses and organizations, redevelopment of the facility should be strongly considered.” The August open house attracted a few dozen people and positive feedback about the condition of the building, but also leeriness about it as viability for any single tenant. The task of gathering enough tenants to fill the building and generating enough rent to sustain it independently appeared more burdensome than realistic.
The committee’s mission did not include finding tenants.
“It is important to note,” the report states, that “while the committee spoke with numerous potential end users, the committee charge did not include the ability to solicit or negotiate any offers on the facility, either for lease or sale.” That would be the county commission’s responsibility, through its administration. But for the years that the county has been maintaining the courthouse property, it’s never had any such serious solicitations, otherwise it would have gladly passed over the building to a financially more beneficial concern.
The administration for several years negotiated with the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, which had shown interest—both during Don Fleming’s and Jim Manfre’s administration—in moving the sheriff’s administration to the annex, as its current facility on Justice Lane in Bunnell is overcrowded. That plan was set aside when the county bought the old Memorial Hospital nearby, where it plans to build the sheriff’s administration headquarters. Bunnell was showing interest in acquiring the old portion of the courthouse for its city hall, and that plan appeared to solidify in July 2012. But it alienated the sheriff, who did not want to occupy the annex while a city government was next door.
So Bunnell then showed interest in acquiring the entire structure and perhaps leasing portions of it. The Bunnell City Commission accepted the gift last November, only to return the building in April, saying the building was too burdensome a responsibility, with too many costly repairs ahead.
That’s when the latest of a string of committees responsible for recommending viable approaches was established.
Revels’s committee, however, did not produce any novel ideas: the commission was already wrestling with whether to keep or demolish the building, and knew that its best chance of keeping the building on its books was through grants and private funding sources, if those were available.
Grants and private funding sources are again the route the committee is recommending. The report lists what it calls “immediate costs” in addition to maintenance costs. Those are surprisingly low, adding up[ to $104,000 for pressure washing and window replacements. As for costs “to prepare the building for leasing,” those, too, are surprisingly low, adding up to less than half a million dollars, not including restroom fixtures and hallway flooring replacement.
Those figures would surprise Bunnell officials, whose estimates of repairs were much higher, and, indeed, county officials, whose own estimates for renovations were closer to $5 million. That figure appeared again as recently as in September when the county commission was drawing up its list of legislative priorities. One of those proposed priorities (since not adopted) was renovations of the old courthouse. The amount the county was seeking from Tallahassee: $5 million.
Whatever the costs of renovations, tenants “would pay for all remodeling work in the annex,” the report concludes. “The committee discussed the county possibly borrowing funds to cover the renovations and debt service and have debt be included as part of the common area maintenance cost,” the so-called CAM fees. But that assumes eventual tenants can be secured to shoulder the debt repayment, otherwise the county would be left holding the bag.
“Another alternative is for the county alternative is for the county to apply for grants for the renovations with the required funding match coming from a dedicated county source,” the report states, without specifying what that dedicated taxpayer source would be.
The committee is estimating that the CAM fee would be around $5.55 per square foot, but it did not estimate actual rental costs, limiting itself to citing the $9 to $17 per square foot range now seen elsewhere in the county. “The county would need to stay in the lower range of the lease fees due to the facility location,” the report states.
The committee’s various proposed uses for the more historic portion of the courthouse include an art gallery, a historic museum and café, a church, teen court, mercantile shops and classrooms. For the annex, the suggested or potential uses are as a small business incubator, office rentals, recreation clubs, social service agencies, church offices and the Free Clinic. If a portion of the building was converted to what the committee calls “office condominiums,” it could then be placed back on the tax rolls, generating property tax revenue (as it would not as a government or a non-profit property).
As for finding a buyer, the committee was bluntly realistic when it assessed the current market and the building’s chances of landing one: “The committee strongly feels at this time there may not be buyers willing and/or able to pay suggested prices and the carrying costs will be continued for a fair period,” the report states, though the same “carrying costs” analysis was not applied to tenancy, should that be more viable. The sale cost of the building was estimated at $1.2 million.
Tearing down the facility, the committee estimated, would cost $142,000.
The committee has disbanded and turned in its report to the county commission, which will be discussing the findings at its meeting Monday, starting at 5 p.m. at the Government Services Building in Bunnell. The report is below.