Plans to lease Carrabelle’s Hexaport building are on hold until a special city commission meeting this Tuesday.
At Carrabelle’s regular city meeting Feb. 6, several commissioners asked questions about the business practices of the Gulf Unmanned Systems Center (GUSC), which wants to lease the Hexaport building off Airport Road. The 65,000 square foot structure has remained empty since modular home manufacturer Greensteel declared bankruptcy in 2009. Carrabelle secured grants to finance the construction of the factory building in hopes of securing jobs.
At last week’s meeting, GUSC President Bruce McCormack requested city endorsement of an addendum modifying the existing lease on the building. Centennial Bank took possession of the lease during bankruptcy proceedings against the former tenant.
According to City Attorney Dan Hartman, McCormack is attempting to buy the lease but cannot do so until the addendum is approved. Once the plant is secured, according to their business plan, GUSC will spend almost $900,000 on upgrades and improvements over the first year as it prepares its drone-testing center
McCormack told commissioners Centennial has accepted his terms and wants to move forward with the transaction.
Commissioner Olivia Massey was the first to question McCormack. She asked if he planned to hire 10 employees immediately after the lease was signed. McCormack said he did and Massey said she was disappointed in the employees who have so far been hired.
“We have a different definition of local people,” she said.
McCormack said 95 percent of the people who have applied for work with GUSC live in Carrabelle. Massey said that a couple just hired had only recently moved to St. George Island.
Mayor Curley Messer and Commissioners Brenda La Paz and Charlotte Schneider all expressed concern newly arrived individuals had taken two of the jobs.
“I’m concerned about the local people. We have some very qualified people in Carrabelle,” Messer said.
McCormack said the two new employees were highly qualified. He said he is trying to hire local workers and is working with Gulf Coast State College’s Advance Training Center to develop a program to train machinists, welders, composite workers and other specialists.
“We know that we have to train,” he said.
La Paz next questioned the contents of a business plan McCormack sent to the city. She read part of a description of the drone-testing center in the plan, written in present tense.
“You are giving the impression that you are already here and operating,” she said.
McCormack said investors understood it was a proposal, not a description of an existing facility.
La Paz next pointed out a discrepancy in the online posting for the center with the state’s Division of Corporations. She noted the state listing referred to Gulf Unmanned Systems Center as Gulf Coast Unmanned Systems Center.
La Paz asked if there were two companies.
Hartman said the difference in the “doing business as” name was not an important discrepancy.
La Paz asked why Hartman’s name is listed on the business plan as a member of the board of directors for GUSC. Hartman and McCormack both said this was a typographical error and the name should have been removed from the list.
McCormack said the copy of the plan he forwarded last week to Carrabelle City Hall was prepared in Oct. 2012 for Dr. Brice Harris at the University of West Florida who oversaw a grant program.
“Dan was included as a local contact for him,” said McCormack.
La Paz, Schneider and Massey said Hartman’s name on the list gave the impression of impropriety. “I would like a job and my husband would too but we thought it would be a conflict of interest,” La Paz said,
Hartman said he had never been on the GUSC board and that to serve there would be an illegal conflict of interest. Messer said he did not believe Hartman had committed any impropriety.
In a telephone interview Monday, Hartman said he has recused himself from further involvement in GUSC negotiations and is seeking another attorney to complete the work.
La Paz said the business plan was not delivered until Feb. 4 and that the budget portion could not be printed out in the city office. She said she wanted more time to review the proposal. She also requested letter of credit for GUSC and wanted to know who McCormack’s investors were.
McCormack said he would provide a letter of credit and told La Paz his investors, Carolina Financial Securities; LLC are named in the business plan.
“I understand your concerns about inaccuracies,” said Economic Development Council Director David Butler. “Plans are plans. He will have a contract. If he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to, the city can take the building back. This is going to be just another business that’s in Carrabelle.
“He doesn’t speak for us. If you have a tenant who’s willing to sign a lease, everything else is just aggravation. If you have concerns, you need to make a legal arrangement and put it in there,” he said.
“I believe in Carrabelle and I think this is a huge opportunity for the city,” said Hartman.
“I’ve been working on this for a year and a half,” said McCormack. “All of the money came out of my back pocket. I have not asked the city for anything. Right now, I own 100 percent of my company. At the end of 30 days, I’ll have right at $1 million in investment and that doesn’t count the undersea facility.”
Massey asked her colleagues not to vote on the lease agreement “until everyone has had a chance to go over this.”
Commissioners voted unanimously to table discussion of GUSC until a special meeting that had previously been scheduled for Feb. 18.