On Sept. 6, Flagler County’s economic development department issued a press release boasting of landing a company called Discovery World Furniture that would build a 250,000 warehouse on U.S. 1 “near the southern edge of Flagler County,” bring 50 jobs and $2.5 million in annual wages.
The release did not mention that utilities for the property hadn’t been secured yet, though that issue would play a role in the deal’s collapse just weeks later. Nor did it mention the $680,000 property tax break the county agreed in July to extend to the company over the next 10 years, by far the largest incentive package the county was offering any company in Flagler’s history, though Ormond Beach and Volusia County were to be the largest beneficiaries by far of the company’s economic impact, according to Bruce Page, the Palm Coast banker, co-owner of the property being sold to Discovery World, and a self-styled economist.
At the time, the company was doing its “due diligence,” as Helga van Eckert, the county’s economic development director, put it to the commission. But two months later in the release, there was no mention of “due diligence” anymore: the release was written as a done deal, though van Eckert had spoken of it as nearly so as far back as May, when she told the economic development board: “They’re already looking at specific properties and if we find the right site for them, I think that’s going to be a go.” In an interview in July, van Eckert boasted more openly: “This is the biggest project that we’ve brought into the county,” she said, though noting again the due diligence part. “It takes us to a different tier.”
By the time the release was issued in September, there was no question that Anthony Lupo, the company’s CEO was speaking of it as a done deal. “Once established in Flagler County, our plan is to expand operations to include another niche market product with our own proprietary designs, mainly to service the coastal areas here in Florida and much of the south east coast of the United States,” Lupo was quoted as saying in the release. The release did not mention that Lupo has been a homesteaded resident at a Hammock Dunes condo since 2010. (He incorporated himself and his wife there as Lupo Family Business on Aug. 14.)
“This will obviously increase the number of employees we will need as well as support local vendors in a cooperative effort,” Lupo continued. “We currently operate out of two facilities with a combined square footage of 205,000. Our proposed building in Flagler County will enable us to streamline our operation.”
It was not a done deal. The deal collapsed last week when, as first reported in the Observer, Lupo said he was pulling out.
“As we have completed our due diligence, we find that the project does not make financial sense for us to move forward at this time,” Lupo wrote van Eckert in an undated letter. “That being said, if an opportunity to work with you and your team in the future should present itself, there is no doubt that you will be our first call.” He lavished praise on the county and its government. (The letter was attached to an email Lupo sent on Oct. 15.)
The collapse of the deal is not the first high-profile reversal for the economic development department. In 2013, van Eckert’s department played up a 300-job promise from a manufacturer who was supposed to sign a 40-year least at the county airport. The deal was projected as solid enough that then-Gov. Rick Scott headlined the groundbreaking. But no more than ceremonial dirt turned at the airport. That same year van Eckert’s department spent $15,000 to buy 276 minutes of advertising, in 10-second increments, on a Times Square billboard, that yielded no response.
Two years ago the county extended a $90,000 subsidy to a local developer to build a “spec” building that would be used to attract new companies. The first of two buildings has been sitting vacant on Otis Stone Road since its completion a year ago, when van Eckert circulated a sunny release and promotional video. Two years ago van Eckert also boasted of a stoneworks company in Georgia, the former Soviet Republic, opening a local hub with 30 jobs in Palm Coast, starting in January 2018. According to the state Division of Corporations, the company’s U.S. subsidiary was incorporated in 2017, around the time of van Eckert’s announcement, then went inactive. Last year the economic development department had no muscle, and was a non-entity, in preventing the closure of a Sea Ray plant in the county, and the loss of 440 high-paying, manufacturing jobs.
The economic development department has spent nearly $100,000 in the past five years on its website, though the substance of its successes, such as Designs for Health and Gioia Sails, consist of local expansion rather than new companies from out of town. The department costs taxpayers about $500,000 a year.
Lupo did not specify either to van Eckert in person–according to van Eckert–or in his letter what caused the reversal at such a late date. “I can’t tell you if it was financial, if it was timing, if it was geotechnical, I don’t know,” van Eckert said. “At the end of the day it doesn’t work for them. We were still talking to them when it made it to the paper, trying to turn the deal around, but once it got out there, they’re just holding off at this point.”
But there was a controlling part in the issue: Lack of water and sewer at the site, and the way the availability of both had been misrepresented in the real estate listing.
County Administrator Jerry Cameron said van Eckert told him “the real estate agent sold it saying there’s water and sewer available, so we moved forward with it. She put together the incentive package etc., then it turned out water and sewer wasn’t available.”
Van Eckert confirmed the account. “When the property was listed, it was listed as having water and sewer on the site,” van Eckert said. “The property owners as we believe understand it believed there was water and sewer and water on the site.”
But there wasn’t. The listing agent? Parkside Realty’s Margaret-Sheehan-Jones–the same Sheehan-Jones the county trusted when she brokered the sale of the Sears building to the county earlier this year, only for the county to find out the building had severe water damage. It is also the same Sheehan-Jones brokering the space at the spec building on U.S. 1. (Sheehan-Jones and van Eckert have a close relationship, with Sheehan-Jones regularly appearing before the economic development board. Sheehan-Jones said on Oct. 29 she was no longer the broker on the spec building, but did not say when that relationship ended.)
In an email this morning, Sheehan-Jones said, “please understand that water and sewer is available because it is at the site. Lots of sites don’t have water and sewer at their site. This one did and was advertised as such. Of course anyone would know approval is always required and because this was outside of the city, the city approval was required and was thus received. “
“I can’t speak to one thing or another with respect to Margaret or Ormond Beach,” van Eckert said. “Real estate deals, sometimes they die three times before they happen.”
“With all the issues we’ve had with this lady and her dealings, why wouldn’t you double check that and why are we waiting to the last minute to address this?” County Commissioner Joe Mullins asked, citing other issues involving Sheehan-Jones.
The disarray surrounding the water and sewer issue came to light soon after the county approved the tax subsidy for the Discovery. Cameron scrambled to find a solution, meeting with Ormond Beach city officials to extend water and sewer to the property. The county also considered extending a line from Plantation Bay’s utility, but that would have been prohibitive. The connection from Ormond was doable, requiring the usual “interlocal” agreement, but it would have to go through the normal channels–and did.
County Commissioner Donald O’Brien, who chairs the county’s economic development board, said as far as he understood it, the deal broke apart because of issues within the furniture-assembling company. “It was that the two owners couldn’t get on the same page, that’s my internal read of,” O’Brien said. “When it was announced at that point the owners of the company were excited and wanted to do this, I can’t speak to what happened with them internally, we delivered on our side, Ormond Beach delivered on their side.”
That’s not how Lupo himself described it, rather focusing on the water and sewer issue. “The last time they had a vote, they voted to agree to continue to talk about it, and that’s when I said, ‘I’m out,'” Lupo told the Observer in a story published Friday. “We couldn’t turn it around quick enough, and I didn’t have any sense that Ormond Beach was going to be cooperative.”
In fact, the Ormond Beach City Commission on Oct. 15, the very day Lupo emailed his letter to van Eckert, voted 3-2 to extend the water and sewer line to the property, after hearing from Bruce Page, the banker and property co-owner, and Page’s attorney. The discussion focused on how the economic development project would benefit Ormond Beach especially.
“Fifty to sixty jobs, we believe that a lot of the people that’ll work there will live in Ormond or Volusia County,” Jeff Sweet, Page’s attorney, told the commission.
City Commissioner Dwight Selby was opposed to the agreement, saying it would open up the south end of Flagler to development in direct competition with Ormond Crossing and Ormond Beach’s own developments. “The city of Ormond Beach has spent millions of dollars to create these utility systems,” he said. “The vast benefit of this goes to Flagler County and we get virtually nothing.”
Page, an unqualified cheerleader for Flagler County development when appearing before Flagler County boards, sang an entirely different tune when he spoke to the Ormond Beach Commission.
“I grew up in Ormond Beach, I live in Flagler Beach now, but my parents live here, I have plenty of family and friends that have strong ties to Ormond, my heart is in Ormond,” he said, before flattering the commissioners for considering the project. “I just want to look you in the eyes and just let you know, from Bruce Page, I would never be involved in a project that would be at a detriment of the city of Ormond Beach. It wouldn’t happen. I can tell you, speaking for my partners, I know that we feel like this project is as Jeff mentioned, the majority of economic impact will actually be the city of Ormond Beach. We felt like that from the very beginning when we bought the property over 15 years ago. Looking at the utilities, I believe that it’s built in structure, that the city would make money off of it, which is great.” Page and his partners bought the property in 2004 for $1.4 million.
“As a long-time banker with an economics background,” he continued, “I’m absolutely confident that most of the economic benefit will be the city of Ormond Beach and Volusia County through direct employment like Jeff mentioned, but also the splill-over effect, the multiplier effect that happens when you have projects like this. I’ve been involved in economic development my entire year, and I can tell you the rising tide raises all ships.” He said the company’s employees will live in Ormond Beach, pay taxes there, do their shopping there. “I’m absolutely convinced of it. I know I’m biased but I’ve tried to look at your position and I can fully imagine it’s a really good project for you to approve.”
In other words, the project was being subsidized by Flagler County taxpayers, for the benefit of residents in Ormond Beach and Volusia County.
“I also asked Ms. Van Eckert whether or not this project had looked at Ormond Beach,” Selby said. “I believe her answer was no, it really hadn’t, and I said why not, and it turns out that the owner of Discovery World Furniture actually lives in Flagler County.”
Van Eckert on Tuesday said the project was always portrayed as being in “due diligence,” and that during due diligence, deals can fall apart. That was true, but not by the time her department issued the release revealing the name of the company, Lupo’s identity and his intentions in his own words.
To Mullins, who was involved in the negotiations with Ormond Beach, the collapse of the deal points to more serious issues with the county’s economic development department. “I’m very concerned why we went down to Ormond Beach probably a week or two before this gentleman needed to talk about his water, and there was no preparation done,” Mullins said.
“This could have been prevented,” he continued, had the economic development department done its homework, “and not taken the word of a realtor who has been a continual problem for the county. I don’t know why we’re still using this realtor.” Mullins said he intends to bring up the status of the county’s economic development department at a future county commission meeting.
The economic development department is not expected to issue a press release about the collapse of the Discovery deal it once called “Project Columbus.”
More lying politicians.Just like ORANGE MAN
Percy's mother says
1. Sheehan-Jones and van Eckert have a close relationship. No other commentary needed on this point.
2. What person in business, whether it be in the private or public sector, takes the word of a realtor at face value? and van Eckert is getting paid how much? She knew what the situation was with the property I’m sure. Perhaps van Eckert and her friend Sheehan-Jones didn’t count on Anthony Lupo doing his due diligence.
3. How many financial fiascos do the taxpayers of Flagler County need to fund due to van Eckert’s lack of due diligence?
4. When is Sheehan-Jones going to be investigated?
5. Why does Flagler County and it’s well-paid employees continue to do business with Sheehan-Jones? When does it stop?
6. As I’ve posted before, Mr. Cameron needs to do a thorough evaluation of Ms. van Eckert’s job performance noting which of her projects have been successful, which of her projects haven’t been successful along with how much taxpayer money has been paid out for incentives and advertising wasted on deals that didn’t materialize.
7. van Eckert needs to go. In my opinion, her job performance is sorely lacking AND it’s costing the taxpayers a lot of money for little return.
8. van Eckert has no remaining credibility. Were she working in the private sector, she’d have been fired long before now.
All this stupidity in the public sector is really getting old. Thorough house cleaning is necessary. The next person in Flagler County who does business with Sheehan-Jones should be canned immediately.
Only thing to say is somebody blew it. This Town cant afford to miss these oppurtunities
That didn’t take long.
Time to take care of the residents, and make this an attractive place for people to come and live – at all income levels.
Build up Town Center – put in affordable apartments/townhomes/patio homes for people who want to work/live here. Business will follow.
Keep the Hammock pristine, and say no to development that doesn’t conform to the already-approved county development plans.
Mikey Eyes says
I agree with Carol! Focus should be on the town center!
little Max says
FACT : Government can not support itself.
With the track record of these same “Economic Players” can we admit that this is just as futile as pouring sand on the beach for millions. Flagler needs to get out of the economic development business all together. The ROI (return on investment)will be greater. Flagler County BOCC supporting a few select insiders at the expense of all of Flagler.
“Nor did it mention the $680,000 property tax break the county agreed in July to extend to the company over the next 10 years, by far the largest incentive package the county was offering any company in Flagler’s history, though Ormond Beach and Volusia County were to be the largest beneficiaries by far of the company’s economic impact,”
Jane Gentile-Youd says
van Eckert needs to go . History has repeated itself too many times to keep her on board. She is a loser and has made us losers too many times. I am sure Parkside Realty might welcome her with open arms – just my opinion.
Concerned Resident says
Time for Van Ekert to go. What has she actually accomlished for Flagler County?
Wow, aren’t we the Keystone cops equivalent of a county. What a bunch of dumb asses and crooks….that we are paying for!
Mike Diedel says
Palm coast Government officials need to step down from their positions. Palm Coast has missed too many opportunities to grow due to incapable Government officials and their inability to bring suitable business to our city.
The issue has nothing to do with Palm Coast government. It’s a county government issue.
Most dont know anything but Palm Coast who live there. they dont even know Palm coast doeskin even have a coast line. or that the County gos west of U.S. 1.
So it’s fair to assume that Flagler County will take legal action against Parkside Realty and Margaret-Sheehan-Jones ?
What is this the 4 th county scandal Jerry Cameron has presided over since becoming the County Administrator?
I’l bet Mullins isn’t to happy these days.
Mike c says
I think you forgot to mention that the 680k was solely contingent on jobs they actually brought. The county was never at risk
The agreement was pegged to the certificate of occupancy for the new building, not to jobs. The facility could have remained vacant–or been sublet: it would still have gotten the subsidy. The agreement was that poorly written.
mike C says
Just read the agreement. Not a bad deal. basically, County would rebate a portion of property taxes paid in consideration of owner constructing a $13m dollar industrial building and Running water/sewer to an industrial park for future use. From afar, it’s not a bad 3p arrangement
ITT didn’t found Palm Coast planning high rise apartments among one family residential areas simply because they didn’t build a sewer system capable of serving such a congested housing or enough roads to serve such traffic. We are having urgent repairs and upgrades to our sewer lines in Palm Harbor after 5 years of enduring the noise and disruption of our sleep with the line of sewer tank trucks day and night with any heavy rain when not even a hurricane in order not to have the sewer backing up in our houses. The utility ,management excuse was well is the storm and you do not want the sewer inside your house right? Before they build the Tidelands, Bella and other apartments off Palm Harbor Parkway we never had this problems in the sewer lift stations of Club House Drive and Palm Coast Parkway. Now they are still working in the 1.5 million improvement of the sewer lift station in Palm Coast Parkway behind the fire house for already over 45 days and not finished yet. All the small sewer lift pumps houses along Club House Drive are almost obsolete that I understand they have to manage to fabricate parts to be repaired when often down….they are noisy and probably past the end of useful life…but high rise congestion projects sill presented for approval. Were all the traffic and poo is going to go? The city needs to trade land with this current land owner for his project to the parcels we own in Boulder Rock Town Center so he can build all those unit in higher than 8 floor building if he wants.
My brother a disappointed city inspector overseas told me that a residential one family home in a nearby county was allowed to be congested with high rise apartments and with any with any small rain their streets and one family residential homes get flooded with sewer…because the old system was to expensive to upgrade to support the new approved congestion. We do not want that here…
@palmcoaster – well said.
Several years ago, feels like centuries now, I posted that instead of spending taxes on Rump’s Wall I would much rather that the funds go towards improved water supply systems, sewage treatment systems, and storm water drainage systems in OUR country – including Flagler county.
As ALL know – that didn’t happen. What did happen, and has ever since the Cuban revolution created the largest “open border” in U.S. history, is that hustlers like rump, who shakedown all levels of government for tax breaks, then turn around and sell their “developements” to criminals – needing to launder money, conceal assets, cheat on taxes, etc. – from everywhere; to retirees who move to Florida for the same reason they move to places like Costa Rica, also/and too, to Florida’s own population growth, and even to people who move here just because they don’t know any better.
Ironically, Latin America has actually been improved, by the departure from there (Cuba, Central, and South America) to Florida, of self-exiled murdering dictators and their henchman, associates, and families to Florida. Many were trained and/or educated by our tax dollars at an American institution that is the West Point of banana republics. One of them was deported from Palm Coast in recent memory.
Anyway, this “deal” is almost a textbook example of slick characters spending OPM (the guilty know what the abbreviation means) and leave the rest of us holding the bag. In other words, trump’s life story.
 Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation
Folks we all may be talking out our asses here, as no one really knows what the business owner is thinking.
A whole lot of concessions were made by two county governments and it still didn’t happen.
Personally I think its more of an economic business decision thats related to the present and future trajectory of manufacturing in general, and how automation will essentially wipe out those assembler jobs anyways.
Just take a gander at that area of US1 and you’ll find several near empty facilities who’s hayday has come and gone.
Put van Eckert on commission like most real sales people are and let’s see how long she lasts. And change the name from economic development department to tax subsidies and giveaways department, because that’s seems to be the only way she can get a deal in the works. What’s the ROI for that department commissioners and administrator? I could produce her lackluster results at half the salary…should I send you a resume?
Damien Esmond says
Aveo Engineering built a beautiful new modern factory, Just not in Palm Coast at 1165 Executive drive in the airport as originally planned. The land was presented to us as “shovel ready” to build and we spent thousands of dollars for permits, Hired Upham in Ormond as our Civil Engineer, all told Aveo wasted $150,000 on exploring the possibility of building our factory there. There were many hardships. There was no electricity, Fine CEO Chris Nielsen said, we will install solar panels and skylights and be off the grid. No said Roy Seiger the Airport manager, you will kill our pilots with the glare from them. We ran extensive solar glare hazard analysis programs that clearly prove the only thing that cause glare is your lake, the amphibious runway. There was no lift station, where will the poo go? Composting toilets were rejected we must instal a septic system, but also a pipe to non existant sewer system so when they do have money to build a lift pump station we can connect to it. But Wait! The lands elevation is too low. Upham stated that in order to legally build on that leased site (Flagler counties land) Aveo must build it up a few feet so as to be at the proper elevation above the water table to even legally have a septic system. Doing the math it added up to 270 dump truck loads of soil, not cheap. This is not shovel ready land. Then theres WWII era conduits and crap underneath the site that needs to be dug out of there first. We pay for all the blueprints to be drawn up, tens of thousands of dollars, and all the sudden, Roy Seigar states they have plans to modernize the airport in the future, and the plan was for a new taxiway to be built that our building would block the Air Traffic Controllers view to a tiny portion of it. So we had to then redesign redraw the site plan to give air traffic control an unobstructed view to this imaginary non existent taxiway that didn’t exist. More tens of thousands of dollars. Last but certainly not least, Executive drives was not even finished and did not connect to Belle Terre because the city was in a fight with the county. To even get contractors to the site, you had to make an appointment with Roy, wait for someone to open gate, call the tower wait for a break in air traffic and cross runway, It was truly a joke. Aveo entered into the deal with the best intentions, Helga and team were great but what a hostile prick Roy Sieger was, in the end we decided not to be a feather in Roys cap and build elsewhere. We briefly reconsidered when it was posted that Sieger was going to take a new job in Tampa, but shortly after that report, I guess he got more money from Coffey and stayed, thereby hammering the last nail in the coffin for Aveo in Palm Coast. We have just a small office with 3 employees here on Palm Coast Parkway, and the Gorgeous new multi million dollar factory is now online and adds 40,000 square feet to our existing 225,000 Square foot facilities. Zero debt, 50% growth rate annually Flagler dropped the ball big time, such a shame.
CB from PC says
I am siding with Percy’s Mother on this. Jones and Political Cronies need a 3rd Party Investigation.
Sorry Margaret, no commission this time.
How do you tell when a Flagler County realtor or politician lies? Their lips move.
Love the vacant commercial space on Route 1 in Bunnell subsidized with hard working people’s tsx dollars.
Love the moldy former Sears building on Palm Coast Parkway.
Never did see the second appraisal as required by law.
IMO the County BOCC needs to look at ALL the cost of Helgas Department! Take into concideration the COST of her and WHOLE staff. Look into how much she has GIVEN away in real monies (not tax breaks). How much doe her department spend on advertising?? undo her and that whole department merge it into one department with the Tourism department. that would save us TAXPAYERS a bunch of money.
This county have been wasting our hard earned dollars before and worst after city of Palm Coast incorporated. Looks like among the millionaire overpriced purchases of derelict real estate from Shehan Jones here they forget the closed bank building wasting away with no A/C or maintenance off Old Kings Road too. FCBOCC member are no good and they should take Cameron with them for covering up Dunn’s, Coffey and their associates bankers and lawyers to court over malfeasant of public funds and cover ups.
They better clean up the mess and stop wasting our hard earned taxes as 2020 elections are almost here.