Apalachicola city commissioners didn’t like the sound of what they heard from City Administrator Betty-Taylor Webb Tuesday night about the progress of negotiations with the federal government over a long-term lease for the Harbor House.
Taylor-Webb said she has been in discussion with the General Services Administration (GSA) about a city proposal to have the offices of the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, housed in the Harbor House at 479 Market Street for the past 20 years, relocate to the vacant site a couple hundred yards away that used to be home to the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR).
She said talks have bogged down over infrastructure improvements and cost requirements that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the umbrella agency over the wildlife refuge, is demanding be done upfront by the city.
Taylor-Webb said the federal agency has been insistent that a series of items be completed that meet government building standards, from widening doorways to adding outside lighting, before they will consider relocating. In addition, they are asking that the city agree to a brokerage agreement that would require it to pay 6 percent of the monthly rental fee. The city has proposed a monthly rent of about $2,000 per month for the former ANERR site.
She said the GSA is asking that the city, which is awaiting approval by the state to allow the former ANERR site to revert to Apalachicola’s ownership, front the cost of the roughly $150,000 in improvements. The federal government would repay the city for these expenses over a 10-year period, she said.
“They demand that,” said Taylor-Webb. “Things don’t operate that way.”
The city would be willing to lease the former estuarine research site to the wildlife refuge “as is,” said Taylor-Webb. But the city doesn’t have the resources to complete a lengthy list of improvements, such as retiling the bathrooms, that go well beyond repainting interior walls, replacing the carpet and other reasonable improvements, she said.
Led by Commissioner Brenda Ash, the commissioners said they backed Taylor-Webb’s overall position, and voted to reiterate their support for her continuing negotiations.
The commissioners also said they were not inclined to have Taylor-Webb pursue a long-term lease deal for the wildlife refuge to continue at the Harbor House. The GSA has offered to increase the monthly lease payments by $1,000, and is asking for a further modification of terms for that site.
Taylor-Webb said that in the future, the city will want to hire an organization or a company to manage the Scipio Creek site, now about to embark on a major transformation funded by federal stimulus money that will include a boat repair yard, possible future fueling station, ice house, open-air market, public restrooms and seafood loading and unloading facility. She said the Harbor House would then make an ideal location out of which a site manager would operate.
After the existing long-term lease expired two years ago, the city and the GSA have agreed to two one-year extensions, which extend until Jan. 2013. Taylor-Webb said that in the event the wildlife refuge decides to vacate the Harbor House, the city would likely offer it a six month to one-year extension to give them a chance to find another location.
“They have had other offers,” she said.
Two other real estate matters surfaced at the meeting. Taylor-Webb said she has discussed with both the Apalachicola Riverkeeper and the Florida Seafood Festival the possibility of their leasing portions of the city-owned community center at Battery Park now that the city has relocated its staffers to the City Hall at Avenue E and Water Street.
City Attorney Pat Floyd said he had reservations about a lease with the Riverkeeper, and cited the environmental group’s lawsuit against the city regarding water quality issues that he said had been a costly and unnecessary challenge to city water and sewer planning.
The attorney cautioned against the city developing too close a financial relationship with the environmental advocacy group, and none of the commissioners appeared to object to Floyd’s reasoning. Mayor Van Johnson indicated he shared that viewpoint.
Taylor-Webb said the city commission, which will continue to meet at the community center, will have to weigh whether it wishes to lease the office space to independent contractors, or turn it over to a group which would assume management responsibility.
In response to a question from Apalachicola resident Charlie Kienzle, Commissioner Mitchell Bartley said he was opposed to any move by the city to sell the site of the former firehouse on Water Street, adjacent to City Hall. Bartley said that in a down market, the city would be taking too great a loss, and would be better off using the site for employee parking as it awaits an upturn in the real estate market.
Ash took a more receptive approach to the idea, saying the city should consider any reasonable offers that come its way for the property.