During July 13 regular meeting, County Commission to discuss options for the Beneva Road property
In June, the Sarasota County School Board rebuffed the plans of the majority of the Sarasota County Commission to allow the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association (MSBIA) to take over the county’s lease of the Florida House property, which is located at 4454 S. Beneva Road in Sarasota.
The structure is just north of the School Board’s Suncoast Technical College.
On June 21, Linda Benanti, the executive assistant to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, forwarded to the county commissioners a letter that Lewis had received the previous day from Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan W. Asplen III, noting the School Board’s decision. The Sarasota News Leader received a copy of Benanti’s email through a public records request.
Weeks earlier — on June 1 — Benanti had sent the commissioners a copy of a May 31 letter from Asplen, responding to a May 25 letter from Lewis. Asplen wrote then that a discussion of the county proposal regarding the MSBIA would be placed on the School Board’s June 7 agenda.
Since July 2007, the county has leased from the School Board — for $1 dollar a year — the site where the green demonstration Florida House Institute has stood. That lease expires on June 30, 2027.
In his May 25 letter, Lewis included a quote from that lease. Section 15 says that the School Board has to approve any sublet of the lease, except for a sublease to the Florida House Institute “or another, similar, appropriate community based organization acceptable to [the School Board].”
“The purpose of this correspondence,” Lewis continued, “is to officially notify the School Board, as the Landlord, of our intent to sublease the property to the Manatee Sarasota Building Industry Association. We are requesting the School Board to provide written consent,” he added.
In his June 20 letter informing Lewis of the School Board’s decision Asplen added, “The School Board would like the County Commission to consider options for transferring ownership of the Florida House to the School Board.”
Months earlier — on March 2 — Asplen had written Lewis, telling him that the school district “is ardently interested in keeping the structure in its existing location … Furthermore, Sarasota County Schools wishes to secure ownership of the Florida House to ensure that the facility is able to maintain its profound contributions to our local community, and beyond.”
Nancy Detert is the lone county commissioner to have voiced an interest in such a transaction after staff provided a copy of that letter to the board members.
The Florida House Institute — now Southface Sarasota — had a sublease with the county that ends on July 9. Amber Whittle, executive director of Southface Sarasota, told the News Leader during a July 7 telephone interview that Southface Sarasota received an email copy of a letter, and the letter itself, from the county several weeks ago, informing Southface Sarasota that the county would not be renewing the sublease. She was out of the office, she noted, so she was unable to provide the exact date of the communication.
In the meantime, Whittle said, Southface Sarasota had been able to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with New College of Florida to move its operation to the college campus. That MOU is valid for a year, she added. She will remain the executive director of the program, she said.
During their regular meeting on July 13, the commissioners are scheduled to discuss their options for the future of the Florida House property. Item No. 5 on that day’s agenda says, “To update on status and provide direction regarding the Florida House structure and the leasehold agreement with the Sarasota County School Board.”
The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. in the Commission Chambers of the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.
A county administrative staff memo in the agenda packet gives the commissioners four options regarding how to proceed:
- “Option 1: Direct the County Administrator to develop a plan to operate the building consistent with the terms of our lease agreement with the school district.
- “Option 2: Continue [to] negotiate with MSBIA for them to take ownership and move the structure off the current site.
- “Option 3: Enter into negotiations with the School Board to consider options for transferring ownership of the Florida House to them.
- “Option 4: The County could solicit proposals from outside agencies to operate the Florida House.”
Staff has recommended Option 1, the memo says. “As we go forward,” the memo adds, “we can continue to review other options before the expiration of the Leasehold Agreement. We can also continue our discussion with MSBIA during that time.”
The Southface partnership and closing of the Florida House
In 2021, the Florida House Institute became a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southface Institute, “a leading innovator in sustainability work for research, advocacy, workforce development training and nonprofit grants,” as Southface’s website puts it.
On Sept. 29, 2020, Charles C. Reith, then the president of the board of the Florida House Institute, sent a letter to county staff, writing that the Institute wanted to change its name to Southface Sarasota and that it also wanted to assign the ownership rights of the structure to Southface “if or when the County’s lease with the School Board ends.”
County staff informed Reith that the county would not consent to the proposal regarding the ownership rights.
On June 30, on its Facebook page, Southface Sarasota announced that the staff had turned in the keys to the Florida House. “For 28 years, this house has served as a pillar of sustainable building and living in the Sarasota community,” the post continued.
On June 6, the Southface Sarasota staff sent out an email to supporters, inviting them to an evening event on June 16 to bid goodbye to the Florida House.
That email, which a recipient shared with the News Leader, came from Whittle, executive director of Southface Sarasota. The email said, “It’s official. Southface Sarasota is moving out of the Florida House. While we have some exciting new developments that will be announced soon, we’re celebrating our beloved green demonstration home-away-from-home one last time at Florida House’s Toast on June 16.”
Then, in a June 17 Facebook post, Southface Sarasota reported that it would conduct an “Everything Must Go” sale on June 24 and 25, making it clear to the public that the staff would be leaving.
Proposals and counter-proposals
In June 2021, Jon Mast, CEO of the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association, proposed buying the Florida House from the county and relocating it to the county’s Northwest Quad, near the Celery Fields in the eastern part of the county. Mast pointed out in that letter that the MSBIA “recently created the Building Industry Institute,” a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, “for the purpose of providing educational programs, workforce development, and the promotion of green/sustainable construction …”
Earlier, in May 2021, as the News Leader has reported, Mast sent a letter to commission Chair Alan Maio, expressing his board members’ outrage about the partnership forged between the Florida House Institute and Southface Institute. Among his points, Mast noted Southface’s declaration that its new offices would be in “ ‘what was once known as the Florida House,’ ” and Southface’s desire to take over the Florida House Institute sublease with the county.
“We object on several counts,” Mast continued. “First and foremost we object to Southface benefiting from the hard work the MSBIA and its stakeholders have put into the Florida House since its inception in 1992. Additionally, Southface is not local. They have no roots in Sarasota County.”
Southface’s goal, Mast alleged, was simply to obtain the building. “This proposed assumption of the Florida House lease and sub-lease would be unjust and egregious,” Mast emphasized.
“Under the care of the MSBIA,” Mast continued, “the Florida House building would be utilized as the MSBIA Housing Center: an educational and demonstration venue for energy efficiency and innovative products for its own burgeoning foundation; as a destination for mentoring youth and adults on building industry careers; a launch pad for our ‘Build my Future,’ Trade Show and Parade of Homes events; location for forums on education for building codes, trades and licensing; philanthropic and fundraising activities; forums on affordable housing and aging in place; as a meeting space for interactions with other community groups; collaborative seminars with educators, government and stake holders; MSBIA councils and committees; and the MSBIA corporate office.”
On Feb. 8 of this year, as the News Leader also has reported, Mast’s wife, Teresa appeared before the County Commission. As a member of the MSBIA’s board of directors, she again stressed the MSBIA’s desire to take over the Florida House.
However, with county staff proceeding with plans for a Planning and Development Services Department building on the Northwest Quad, Teresa Mast said the MSBIA board wanted to move the Florida House to the Southwest Quad.
She added that the Southwest Quad “would be the perfect resting spot for the Florida House building, as well as the [MSBIA’s new nonprofit] Building Industry Institute.” There, she continued, workforce and green/sustainable educational programs could be offered.
Teresa Mast is chair of the county’s most influential advisory board, the Planning Commission, which makes recommendations to the County Commission on land-use applications. Both she and her husband previously worked for Sarasota County.
Yet, as county staff subsequently made clear, a conservation easement the commission placed over three of the Quads — including the Southwest parcel — would not allow the relocation of the Florida House to that site.
Then, on April 26, Commissioner Michael Moran won three of his colleagues’ support for a motion directing county administrative staff to negotiate a Florida House lease with the MSBIA. Part of the motion called for the Building Industry Association — “and/or any nonprofit that’s affiliated with [it]” — to move the structure before the county’s lease with the School Board ended.
Commissioner Detert objected, as she had won board approval just two weeks before — on April 12 — for a full discussion of options for the future of the Florida House.