First Baptist Christian Academy of Palm Coast may have to change its name: Its new home will be in the heart of Bunnell as the Flagler County Commission on Tuesday voted 3-1 to accept its lease proposal at the old county courthouse. The vote ends the county’s nearly decade-long search for a viable use of the 54,000 square foot building, its oldest portion first built in the early 1920s. An annex was built in 1982.
The vote also represents an unexpected, 11th-hour turn-around for a building most people, including some commissioners (and Bunnell’s city government, which briefly took possession of it before rejecting it), had written off as unusable.
The county approved a generous deal that would lease the entire building to the school for 10 years, with renewable options, at a total rent (including fees) of $3,000 a month for the first two years and four months, rising to $6,000 a month after that. And the county would throw in an additional $375,000 in tax dollars to help refurbish the building ahead of the school moving in in July, money it the commission had not previously approved for consideration as part of any building plan.
“This takes away the expense that we’ve been having annually,” Commissioner Barbara Revels said, “and has income in its place, sets aside money so that we end up with a better building in a few years.” Revels led a volunteer committee tasked with finding a viable use for the courthouse.
Commissioner Nate McLaughlin was not pleased with the vote, noting, among other reasons he opposed the measure, that the $375,000 would come out of sales tax revenue, a pot for which the county had an approved list of spending measures—not including the courthouse. Even as the commission was readying to take a vote at the end of a two-hour discussion, Commission Chairman Frank meeker was under the impression the sum was “coming out of reserves.” It was not, though County Administrator Craig Coffey said “either way would be acceptable.”
On the other hand, the general fund, which has been paying for the building’s maintenance, will no longer be drained by those costs.
“I am not in favor of putting more money into this building,” McLaughlin said. “To me, even in the proposed program that’s being brought to us, there’s still a liability to the county. We are the deep pockets, we are the ones who will be the owner of the building if something happens at the building, in the building, about the building. At the end of the day we’re not excluded from any kind of lawsuit or anything like that. We still have the liability there.” He called the school proposal a “fabulous” idea, but he’d have rather sold the building to the school. “This building has been an albatross since it was vacated, on the back of the board” and that of taxpayers, he said.
Coffey called Courtney’s proposal “intriguing,” but “not as established” as the academy’s proposal.”
“whenever you get into a smaller company, you look around and you have a smaller staff, you have smaller resources, and you’ve got to do all the heavy lifting yourself,” Coffey said. Not paying rent for 10 years was also “problematic,” he said. Courtney had spoken of a partnership with the school board’s adult education division, but Superintendent Jacob Oliva told the county administrator that the district was not in a position to have such a partnership, at least not at the moment.
The academy, on the other hand, has experience maintaining larger building and has a large organization behind it.
But a clearly displeased Courtney, speaking to commissioners, said that the invitation to submit a proposal was accompanied by a clear directive from the county: that there would be no additional county money for the building. “No more money, period,” he said. “We were told there was no money available. We would have loved to have found out through the RFP that there was another $375,000 available in grants from the county. Since we didn’t know that, our RFP came in the way it did. However, we have no animosity.”
Nevertheless, Courtney was critical of the county “taking away” $375,000 from county coffers, and directing it specifically to the Baptist school, “a single entity,” rather than to the benefit of the entire county. He described himself “torn” over the issue, saying the building could also be torn down for $164,000 and save the rest of that money the county is now going to spend. But he was also glad the building would be saved.
Denise Calderwood, recently defeated in a bid for a county commission seat, echoed Courtney’s criticism regarding the $375,000, only to get rebuked by Coffey. “Miss Calderwood was at several meetings when a county investment was actively discussed,” Coffey said. “She was there. So to say I didn’t know about it is not correct. She knew it was openly discussed at an open, public meeting, and it was discussed in a newspaper article when the school was being discussed there.”
That only led to a different interpretation from McLaughlin. “The fact of the matter is,” McLaughlin said, “what has been said from this board over and over again is that we’re not willing to invest money, and it was right for someone to think not.” But, he said, the $375,000 had not been on the table in the RFP process until the commission “put it there.”
Initial rent for the school will be $1,000 a month starting in March, rising to $2,000 a month in the summer of 2015. In addition, the school will, pay common area maintenance fees to cover the cost of insurance, the roof, fire alarms, the elevator, and the air handling system, including its periodic replacement. The county will not pay any utilities. Those will be paid directly by the church.
The building needs $875,000 to $900,000 in refurbishing and repairs before the school could move in, the county administration estimates. The county would put up the $375,000, Coffey said, with the school expected to repay the amount over 30 years. The sum is amortized over 30 years, but it’s interest-free. “If they stay the 20 years, they would pay two-thirds of the cost, if they leave and we have another occupant after 10 years, we would still recoup that as part of those charges that would be part of the rent, because we have an upgraded facility. These improvements will not go bad, and it’ll make the facility more sellable, more leasable.”
The total is $3,000 a month initially, rising to $6,000 a month. Since the building was shuttered to public use in 2006, the county has been spending $70,000 a year on basic maintenance, but that amount includes utilities. Utility costs will be eliminated, suggesting that the county could, at least starting in 2017, come out slightly ahead on overall costs—assuming major structural repairs are not necessary: the county remains the school’s landlord, responsible for all major repairs to the building.
The administrator defended the proposal as an investment in the building’s future, and stressed that the up-front payment of $375,000 is not a loan to the school.
“We’re not loaning that to the church, we’re making an investment in a county facility,” Coffey said. “If you think about how we grow in a decade, we grew by over 50,000 people in a decade, that could easily happen to us again. Maybe not at that level, and we may find ourselves short of space.”
Last year the commission appointed a committee, headed by Commissioner Barbara Revels, to study the future of the building and the best way to market it. The committee’s mission was extended last fall and redirected to actually finding potential tenants, leading to a request for proposal. That request produced the two submissions—from the school and from Courtney’s IT venture. The committee last met on Monday to review the proposals. All but one of the committee members voted for the school over the IT venture, as the IT venture was seen as “high risk,” while the school could “improve the environment in Bunnell.” The committee pushed hard for the $375,000 construction subsidy.
Tuesday morning, Sally Sherman the deputy administrator, met with the school’s CPA and reviewed the school’s books. The accounting history had been the school’s weaker portion of its proposal, b y the school’s own admission. “They have more than enough funds to move this project forward with the investment they indicated,” Sherman said, referring to the half million dollars the school said it had in pledges and cash.
Revels said she spoke with First Baptist Church of Bunnell officials about the Palm Coast church moving its school into a landmark building on Bunnell grounds. “They wholeheartedly said they welcome them,” Revels said, “and they were actually working with them, had met with them.”
Kevin Lautar, a pastor at the academy, briefly explained how the Baptist church warmed to rending the courthouse. “We’ve grown out of room pretty rapidly,” he said, speaking of turning away students for lack of room at the school’s current facility on Palm Coast Parkway, while the courthouse proved larger than school administrators initially anticipated. “We feel that this building satisfies our need at least for the next decade,” with plans to draw more students from Ormond Beach and Holly Hill. The school does not “discriminate” against prospective students, but the school has a conversation with applicants to make clear to them the nature of the school.