By Donald Wittkowski
Over the strenuous objections of two of its members, City Council approved a financial package Thursday night to possibly buy an empty commercial building that Mayor Jay Gillian and others envision as the centerpiece of a bayfront revitalization plan.
Capping a tense Council discussion, the governing body voted 5-2 in favor of a $700,000 funding ordinance that represents the first step toward acquiring the two-story structure known as 50 Tennessee Avenue.
Although there are no specific plans for the site at this time, Gillian and some members of Council believe the building could help to transform the city’s nondescript public boat ramp area along the Tennessee Avenue bayfront into a showplace for recreation.
“I think it’s such an asset for that area,” the mayor said, noting that he wants the city to buy the building before private developers might scoop it up.
Although the funding ordinance was approved, the measure does not commit the city to buying the property. Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson told Council that the city will continue with its “due diligence” process to check the building’s structural integrity as well as for the possibility of any environmental problems.
Based on the results of those inspections, Council will take another vote at a later date whether to complete the deal. Councilman Tony Wilson said the city will have plenty of time to scrutinize the building before reaching a final decision whether to buy it.
“Just because the money’s available doesn’t mean we’re going to spend it,” Wilson said.
Councilman Michael DeVlieger noted that the building is strategically located next to the public boat ramp and represents a rare opportunity for the city to buy commercial property on the bayfront.
“This type of thing doesn’t come along every day,” he said.
DeVlieger and other members of Council who supported the funding ordinance joined with Gillian in talking about the building’s potential uses for boating, recreation, school programs and public safety along the waterfront.
“There’s so many things that could be done with that,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman said.
However, Councilmen Bob Barr and Keith Hartzell split from the rest of the members to vote against the funding ordinance. They argued it was premature to consider buying the building before specific plans were developed to convert it into city use.
“I don’t see the rush to do it,” Hartzell said.
Using strong language, Barr said he was “extremely uncomfortable” with Council’s desire to buy the property. He maintained that the city should first complete its engineering inspections on the 53-year-old building to determine its overall condition before any decisions were made.
“This is a dangerous precedent to set,” he said.
Barr also warned that the property would likely need costly upgrades – perhaps in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $350,000 – to bring it in line with the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Those costs would significantly add to the city’s $700,000 investment to buy the building, he said.
Further criticizing the proposed deal, Barr wondered why the city is so eager to buy a building that has been up for sale since February but has so far drawn no formal offers.
The building is currently part of the Ocean Reef condominium complex that surrounds the Tennessee Avenue bayfront. Barr and Hartzell asked Council to table the vote on the funding ordinance so they could fulfill their promise to meet with the Ocean Reef residents to discuss the proposed deal. But the other Council members declined to delay the vote.
A handful of Ocean Reef residents criticized the funding ordinance during the Council meeting. Echoing comments made by Barr and Hartzell, they questioned why Council would set aside the money to buy the building before specific development plans were completed for the site.
“We are upset. We don’t know what it’s about,” said Ocean Reef resident Ed Price, who ran unsuccessfully against Gillian in the 2014 mayoral race.
Price argued that the city was skipping the normal protocol of crafting development plans and designs for a project before approving the funding.
Other Ocean Reef residents urged Council to delay the funding ordinance until more information is known about the property and how its sale would affect their homes.
“This is really serious to us, because it’s in our backyard,” condo owner Kathleen Leonard told Council. “Please take it as seriously as we do.”
In an interview after the Council vote, Leonard called the city’s plan to possibly buy the building “ludicrous.”
Pat Garza, another Ocean Reef resident, said the 182 condo owners within the complex have been kept in the dark about the proposed deal.
“We were never told anything,” Garza said.
The mayor, however, pledged to work with the Ocean Reef residents to enhance the Tennessee Avenue bayfront. For starters, he said the city’s proposed purchase of 50 Tennessee Avenue would protect the building from private developers and would also prevent it from becoming an eyesore.
“We’re doing everything we can to be good neighbors down there,” Gillian said of the city’s relationship with the Ocean Reef community.