When it comes to the old Flagler County Courthouse and its annex, the central question for its landlord—county government—is whether someone out there is interested in taking on the building: leasing it or owning it outright. That question remains unanswered after a two-hour open house the county hosted at the courthouse Friday, though an immediate answer wasn’t entirely the aim.
“The aim today,” County Commissioner Barbara Revels said, “is number one, show off the building to dispel the terrible rumors and what quality construction it is in the annex, and how the historical section is able to be restored. Second is to entertain people’s visits who might have an interest in leasing or purchasing.”
Several dozen people turned out. Most were local residents, business owners, Realtors, and a few politicians. There were only a handful–three or four–prospective businesses. They were led through both sections of the building in guided tours. Both sides have been spiffed up considerably since last fall, when the building looked more like a ruin than a prospective business center. Still, the building’s size, at nearly 50,000 square feet, its age and the demands it is likely to make on any occupant, in remodeling and maintenance, were also clear for all to see. The myths dispelled, in other words, went both ways.
“My first impression is that the way we looked at it as an opportunity, all I see is work,” Ky Ekinci said after taking the tour. Ekinci owns Office Divvy, the Palm Coast co-location and business incubator. He sent county officials’ hearts fluttering last May when he spoke to the commission of his firm’s planned $1 million expansion, and that the courthouse was a contender for the move. But that was before his analysis today. “Maybe for somebody else’s vision, it’s not as scary, but that’s my first impression, he said, citing the voluminous up-front investment occupancy would require.
Still, he’s not ruling it out. “Eliminating emotion from everything else, it has to be a logical decision and make business sense,” Ekinci said. “I wouldn’t say I am disappointed. It’ll require more work on paper.”
County Administrator Craig Coffey did not contest Ekinci’s perspective. “I think that’s a fair and realistic assessment,” Coffey said, understanding as well that “business is all about risk. Can you make it less of a risk?” The suggestion being that the county’s role would not be completely eliminated from the picture: it could possibly still be a partner at some level: the presence at the open house of Helga van Eckert, the county’s economic development director, was an indication of the county’s hopes that the building would become another gear in the local economy, rather than a drag on tax dollars.
And certain parts of the building can be occupied within 60 to 90 days. Revels mentions the quick transformation that, for example, a call center could put in place on one of the floors of the annex. On the other hand, such a business might also require a different parking configuration, which could add to preparatory costs. The county owns 4 acres around the building, but it would still have to work with Bunnell to accommodate those reconfigurations.
But certain realities persist. “The taxpayers have made clear that the $70,000 that it takes to run the building has got to be paid by someone who occupies the building,” Revels said. Bunnell briefly took ownership of the building, thinking it could turn it into its city hall and rent out parts of it, only to give it back once it figured out it couldn’t afford the responsibility. There’s been indications from non-profits and even a handful of businesses they could occupy the building, but nothing bankable.
Coffey presented a set of options to the commission: demolish the building. Demolish in part and preserve a part. Sell it. Lease it. The commission then appointed a committee to study the options and return its recommendation to the commission. Revels is chairing that committee, which meets every two weeks and is stocked with “aggressive data-gatherers,” she says, who have been going through a spreadsheet of tasks, crossing one after the other as a report to the commission is getting drafted. That report is due in October. “This open house is to add to the community’s opinions, users, to round out the report,” Revels said.
A key question: how much it will cost to refurbish the building in such a way that a firm could rely on the figures enough for its business plan. Those figures have so far been contentious. The county had some. It places the reconstruction costs of the annex portion of the building alone at $3.8 million. Including the old portion of the building would push those costs past $5 million. The Revels committee is gathering figures of its own, though they will not be outlined as in the county report. “We’re going to have a range,” Revels said.
In the end, Coffey said, 90 percent of prospective searchers might not pan out, that could still leave 10 percent who might see something worth working with there.
If not, the recommendations, demolition or an attempted sale on the market, are still on the table.