Apalachicola city commissioners agreed at a special meeting Monday afternoon to go after about $600,000 in state emergency management funding to resurrect the dilapidated Popham building on Water Street, a historic structure that hearkens back to the origins of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay a century ago.
To seek the funds from a newly-created Hurricane Michael recovery grant program to stabilize and shore up the two-story, 6,000-square-foot building, built by the flamboyant William Popham in 1923 to process oysters, they unanimously agreed.
What exactly they’ll do with the building if the project goes through, that remains unclear.
Monday’s meeting, sought by newly-elected Commissioner Despina George after the prior commission on Oct. 8 approved the grant application as one of its last acts - just prior to the swearing-in of two new commissioners and a new mayor - gave the new board a chance to delve into details on the grant proposal.
In his introduction, Mayor Kevin Begos reviewed the history of the Popham Building, a boat repair facility from the 1930s up until it was abandoned in the mid-1980s. In 2010, the city bought the building with an $800,000 Working Waterfronts grant, marked by restrictive covenants designed for preserving the commercial fishery.
In Sept. 2018, the Triumph Gulf Coast Board awarded $533,000 to restore the Popham building, and to create a wooden boat building facility there, under the administration of the Apalachicola Maritime Museum. This money constituted about half of a $1.1 million Triumph grant, with the remaining monies earmarked for restoring the commercial fishing docks at the Mill Pond.
“There have been all sorts of plans submitted, including maritime museum management,” over the past decade, said Begos. “To me it’s something that’s been sitting for 10 years.”
The mayor suggested one option might be to use the site for aquaculture to help commercial fishermen enter into business or to store gear. Begos also noted the city is behind in its reports to the Florida Communities Trust, which bestowed the working waterfronts funding on the city in 2010.
City Manager Ron Nalley told commissioners the city has been approved for about $610,000 for the Popham building - $410,000 from the Triumph grant and $200,000 in insurance claim monies following Hurricane Michael. He estimated that it would take about $590,000 to complete the first phase which would involve bracing the building, and rolling it to a temporary site in preparation of making repairs to the foundation, roof, frame, walls and floors.
Begos noted that because Triumph recently implemented new guidelines that require county endorsement of all awarded projects, and since the county commission has not yet made such an endorsement, that Triumph grant money is in jeopardy of being lost. "I am hopeful that we can still get that grant money," he said.
The second phase of the Popham project, which would involve elevating the building and rolling it back to connect it to the original property, would cost about $600,000, for a total cost of about $1.2 million. The grant request for the Florida Department of Emergency Management money, which was due the day after the special meeting, totals $590,000.
“The key to this, it has to be a project not eligible for FEMA public assistance,” said Nalley. “All the other docks, we are getting some money for from public assistance, but only the Popham building, because it was vacant at the time of the use, (does not qualify).
“We’re taking a shot in the dark,” he said. “It’s a project with a lot of moving parts (but) if we don’t take advantage of this money, it’s gone.”
Begos asked whether it would make more sense to tear it down and replace it. Nalley said the sense the city received from citizens following the hurricane, was that it was important to restore it and not tear it down.
“We’re trying to lessen the financial impact for the city,” Nalley said.
Commissioner Anita Grove said tearing the building down would end its grandfather status, and that a replacement would be governed by stricter rules regarding what can be built in such a flood zone.
“It would not be permitted today,” she said. “You tear it down and you can’t use that property. It’s over water; they would never permit it to happen today.”
Commissioner Adriane Elliott pressed for details of a business plan, and whether the maritime museum would take over the facility once the work is completed.
“I’m wary of building something, and we don’t have a solid plan how to build it yet,” she said. “I’m worried we may get this built and we don’t have anyone committed to running business there that could be profitable.”
Nalley said the grant application calls for a procurement policy and cost estimates, and “is more in line with proving it meets eligibility requirements.
“The use is up for further discussions. We may look at some alternative uses for that building,” he said. “Without this money there won’t be any building.”
Begos underscored his belief alternative uses ought to considered if and when the time comes to implement one.
“Our whole world has changed since they wrote this in 2008-10, when there was still hundreds of oyster boats working the bay,” he said. “Right now we essentially don’t have an oyster industry. (This plan) is completely out of date and wouldn’t make any sense. That whole thing would have to be totally reworked.”
Elliott said the site might be used to create covered boat slips, and audience member and Apalachicola resident Jim Brown, a former head of law enforcement for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said millions of dollars may be available for recreational boating purposes. Begos said his reading of the original grant indicates that such plans would run contrary to stipulations for commercial uses.
“I’m just concerned is we don’t currently have a project we can use,” said Grove. “I feel that building has a strong historical significance. I do feel the in-water component of it can help pay for it. We need to start over with the use we might want to have with this building.”
Robin Vroegop told commissioners that in her role with the city’s recreation committee, she investigated the Popham Building, and said the status of the submerged land leases with the state could become a factor.
“They’re not going to prevent it from being renewed,” said Grove.
“The Florida Communities Trust will be thrilled with any improvements,” said Begos.
Vroegop also questioned the validity of submitting the project for a fund designed to help buildings damaged by Hurricane Michael, and shared photos she took about three weeks before the storm that indicated extensive damage to the foundation.
“I think you’re asking the question to the wrong people,” said Begos. “I think there’s no question that Hurricane Michael did additional enormous damage.”
Vroegop stood by her opposition. “I object to it,” she said. “We’ve had historic resources that are at least as valuable as that. Anybody remember the Venezelos? Anybody been here that remembers the Sea Dream?”
Commissioners also heard from Leslie Coon, who voiced concerns about the cost of insuring a restored building, and what liability the city would continue to have. “It’s liable to get destroyed in this storm,” she said.
“It’s about incentivizing your property so it doesn’t cost city residents anything,” said Nalley. It wouldn’t cost residents anything if we find the right tenant.”
Bobby Miller said “I hate to lose a historic structure. We need these structures, we’re more famous for these structures than we think.” He also cautioned that commissioners must look carefully at what could be done with the building, and whether any revenue would go into city coffers.
“What are the down sides of getting this grant? How will it handcuff us? If it doesn’t handcuff us in any way, I say go for it,” he said.
“I feel like we owe it to our people,” said Begos. “It might generate 10 or 15 or 20 jobs. Our tourists do love these historic buildings; it sets us apart from a Destin. I think it’s worth taking a shot.”
Dolores Croom voiced support for seeking the grant. “I’m a taxpayer so I know the impact of whatever happens here it’s going to come out of me and my family’s pocket,” she said. “I think the historical buildings here are wonderful.”
Greg Phillips told commissioners he believed there would be “a tremendous cost to tear it down and you end up with a property that isn’t worth much.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “I don’t understand that it totally commits the city to not selling it in the future.”
Miller suggested the building be called the Sawyer Building, in honor of Fred Sawyer, Jr. who bought it in 1948 and designed and operated a state-of-the-art boat works on the site.
Sawyer’s son, Fred Buck Sawyer, spoke lovingly of the boat works. “It was one of the first cradle lifts in this part of the world. My dad designed it from the ground up and it worked like a charm,” he said. “The lumber in it, heart yellow pine, is irreplaceable.”
Sawyer was cautious about giving the project a ringing endorsement. “My heart tells me to save it; my logic is I’m a little fuzzy on that,” he said. “You’re going to run into things you didn’t expect.”
George, who voted for the grant application, saved her comments to the end.
“I hate the situation we’ve been put here. The time to discuss this was when the grant opportunity (presented itself),” she said. “We have a poor system of vetting and approving grants. I hope we can work to change that process so city commissioners and the public will have input (on) grant projects.
“I feel like we’re being put in a bad positon. We’ll never know if there was another project that would fit these requirements,” George said. “We were handed this grant application when we came in the door. That’s not the way I want to do the city business.”
Just prior to the commission’s unanimous OK, Grove signaled that she had reservations about continuing the city’s partnership on the project on the maritime museum.
“They have a track record of non-performance,” she said. “The track record there gives us a lot of information.”