At the Sept. 8 Carrabelle city meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to allow Gulf Unmanned System Center (GUSC) an additional six months to come back into compliance with their lease on the Hexaport factory building on John McInnis Road.
On Feb. 18, 2014, after five years of vacancy and much negotiation, Carrabelle city commissioners voted unanimously to lease the factory building to GUSC. The lease was signed three months later, on May 14.
The 65,000 square foot structure was abandoned by modular home manufacturer Greensteel when the firm declared bankruptcy in 2009. Centennial Bank took possession of the lease during bankruptcy proceedings.
GUSC agreed to pay $10 per year to lease the factory for the first 15 years, after which the cost of rent would be adjusted. Under terms of the lease, GUSC must provide employee records and proof of insurance annually.
Last month, Mayor Brenda La Paz asked GUSC CEO Bruce McCormack to appear before the city commission to discuss the fact that work at GUSC had slowed to a halt in January when the firm laid off most of its employees.
La Paz said McCormack was in default of his lease on the property, because he had fewer than 20 employees and no employees from Carrabelle. She quoted GUSC’s lease saying that the company agreed to employ 10 people full time with medical benefits during its first year in operation, and increase this by 10 the second year, and was to have had 20 employees by the end of the third year with a preference to Carrabelle residents.
Last week, she questioned GUSC’s CEO for nearly an hour while the rest of the commission remained silent.
McCormack told commissioners he was forced to release staff because federal funding for several projects was not forthcoming. He said he was confident the money will be available after the beginning of the new fiscal year in October.
McCormack said he employed 14 Franklin County residents until his funding failed in January.
La Paz said she had investigated several contracts McCormack claimed to hold, including testing an unmanned lawnmower for Florida Department of Transportation. She said she was unable to verify that the contracts existed.
McCormack said the contracts did exist and that he could bring them to City Hall to prove his point. He said that because he is a subcontractor on most projects, GUSC’s name may not appear on some primary contracts.
La Paz asked him to bring them to City Administrator Courtney Millender. On Monday afternoon McCormack met with Millender and LaPaz and showed them two signed contracts.
La Paz asked who McCormack planned to hire if the contracts do come through. He said he had trained staff in the past and he could train additional workers as needed.
“We have a business with tremendous potential for Carrabelle,” Commissioner Cal Allen said, telling McCormack “I would like to see you have a second chance and keep this in Carrabelle.”
McCormack said he had invested millions of dollars in GUSC, and had used his own paycheck to make payroll on two occasions.
“I’m here to stay,” McCormack told La Paz. ”I had to lay off my friends. We’re not doing this because it’s a lot of fun.”
McCormack’s wife Cheryl joined him at the podium and told commissioners that bringing GUSC to Carrabelle represented a huge investment for her husband.
“This feels like an interrogation,” she said, asking whether other companies wanted to use the Hexaport building.
“We have had calls,” said La Paz, “We want to see action.”
Cheryl McCormack said GUSC has made improvements to the building that will benefit the city. She said the newly-passed Federal Aviation Authority rule FAA 107 will lead to a dramatic increase in availability and use of unmanned systems (drones), and companies like GUSC that contract to test drones will benefit. (see sidebar)
Allen said before GUSC leased Hexaport it had been sitting empty and there was no interest in using it. He asked City Attorney Dan Hartman if there was a way to place a hold on declaring GUSC in default of their lease.
Hartman said the city did not have to make a declaration. “The city has discretion to take the building back at any time,” he said. “We don’t have to withdraw our rights. We can come up with new criteria and renegotiate a new contract.”
Allen reiterated that “I am personally convinced there is a great future here,” and moved to postpone action on the lease. The motion passed unanimously. Commissioner Olivia Massey did not attend the meeting.
La Paz suggested a six-month deferral of action on the lease and said she opposed renegotiating the contract. “I suspect you will be back and we won’t go through all of this then,” La Paz told McCormack..