Flagler County government may have found a long-term tenant for the entirety of its old and long-shuttered but burdensome courthouse: First Baptist Christian Academy of Palm Coast, a 200-student private school that’s outgrowing its facility on Palm Coast Parkway.
The county commission has scheduled a special meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning to review and likely approve the proposal, potentially ending a tortuous search for a use of the 54,000 square-foot building while bringing a stable tenant and some concurrent economic activity to the heart of Bunnell. The school employs 35 people.
But there are challenges ahead. The county proposes to lease the space with generous up-front subsidies to the sectarian school, starting with $360,000 in interest-free, tax-funded capital improvements, while offering the building for the first two years at $1,000-a-month rent. The $360,000 sum would amount to an interest-free loan to a religious school at taxpayers’ expense.
The school proposes to pay back the capital improvement advance over 30 years, at a rate of $1,000 a month, while paying additional common area maintenance fees (or CAM fees) of $3,700 a month in the first year, rising to $4,700 a month after two years. CAM fees would cover the cost of maintaining the roof and the air handling system, property insurance, fire alarm system and other, more minor items.
The total monthly amount the school would pay to the county would be $5,700 in the first two years, rising to $6,700 after two years, not including what cost-of-living, or inflationary, supplement the county might tack on. The building’s basic upkeep alone has been costing the county close to $6,000 a month in the decade it’s gone unused, though the sum includes utilities, which the school would be responsible for.
Although the Christian academy admits that it has “never had an independent CPA perform a review or audit of the financial records or books” at the school, it projects an operating income of $1.6 million in the first full year of operations at the old courthouse site, with an enrollment of 300 students. It projects an income of $2.6 million in the fifth year, with an enrollment of 472 students, and 10tjh-year income of $2.7 million, with an enrollment of 527 students.
The school started operations in 2008, the year school enrollment in Flagler County leveled off after years of rapid growth.
The lease proposal was one of two submitted in response to a county request for proposals to potential renters of the old courthouse. The strength of the Baptist academy’s proposal was in its comprehensiveness: the school would occupy the entire building, with classrooms in the annex and administrative offices in the old portion of the courthouse.
The county received just one other proposal, from Doug Courtney’s Excec Data company. (Courtney unsuccessfully ran for public office several times locally.) Under the name of Information Technology Development Center, or ITDC, Courtney proposed to lease the whole building (for 10 years) and use it as an information technology hub that would offer education, a business incubator, training and IT access for the general public. Courtney proposed investing $1 million over three years and eventually buy the courthouse.
But the county had qualms about the “speculative” and start-up nature of Courtney’s proposal, and his reliance on unspecified and yet-unsecured grants as funding sources. He would secure “initial investors” in the first 30 days from the time he’d have been awarded the building. “Due to the history concerning use of the Historic Courthouse,” Coiurtney wrote, “commitment of funds from investors and financial institutions will not be available until Flagler County’s intentions are documented.”
Courtney in an early proposal to the county had also noted that Palm Coast’s Office Divvy, the co-location business, could potentially occupy a large portion of the building, when in fact Courtney had never spoken to Office Divvy owner Ky Ekinci about the notion.
“The lease of the facility,” Courtney was proposing, “will be done through a triple net lease where all the costs of maintenance, upkeep, renovations, upgrades, and operations will be provided by ITDC. There will be no monthly lease payments for the County, nor will there be CAM oversight by the county.”
The school’s proposal was more thorough and specific, and easily won the three votes of the three-member administrative committee that reviewed the two proposals last Wednesday. (The three were Deputy Administrator Sally Sherman, Facilities Director Heidi Petito, and Airport Manager Roy Sieger.)
First Baptist Christian Academy, an arm of the First Baptist Church of Palm Coast (at 6050 Palm Coast Parkway), started with a mere two preschool classes in 2008. It added elementary grades through 2013, when middle and high school classes were added (through grade 11). The school offers traditional, teacher-guided classes, virtual education and what it calls “homeschool partnerships.”
As a school, the old courthouse would see activity starting at 7:30 a.m. with pre-school care and ending at 6 p.m. when afterschool care ends. School itself would be in session from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. “The site will be developed to include a fenced in play space behind the Annex,” the school’s proposal states. “Faculty and staff parking will be available in the parking lot behind Bunnell City Hall. Outdoor recreation and play space will be utilized on the property adjacent to the parking lot behind Bunnell City Hall. The fenced in tennis court will also be used for outdoor recreation, play space and P.E. classes.”
The academy is taking responsibility for all construction and renovation (under the architectural guidance of Flagler Beach architect Joseph Pozzuoli), which it projects will cost $500,000 and take four months, not including permitting. The school says it’s already acquired that amount through gifts and short-term unsecured promissory notes. “FBCA does not desire or seek to eliminate or modify historical aspects of the site,” the proposal specifies. “FBCA would be diligent to preserve the historical value and the appearance of the site whenever possible.
The school is mostly privately funded, but it also receives tax dollars through the state’s McKay scholarship program, a voucher program that enables special-needs students to attend private school on state-subsidized scholarships. (A Leon County circuit judge is hearing arguments today about whether he should dismiss a constitutional challenge to the program.) The school also offers Title 1 reading and math assistance, the federal program that supplements education in public and participating schools.
The building would be occupied as a school starting in July 2015.
The full proposals and background materials going before county commissioners Tuesday are below.