Venice City Council offers consensus on counter proposal to county regarding Hamilton Building lease

City and county staff continuing work toward finalizing library space agreement by March 8, when both boards will hold regular meetings

The Hamilton Building is owned by the City of Venice. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The Hamilton Building is owned by the City of Venice. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With the consensus of the Venice City Council this week, negotiations will proceed in an effort for the Council and the Sarasota County Commission to finalize a lease on March 8 that will allow the county to use the city-owned Hamilton Building as the temporary location of the Venice Public Library.

In the meantime, county staff is working on an environmental assessment of the Hamilton Building, Assistant County Administrator Lee Ann Lowery told the Council during its regular meeting on Feb. 23, and county staff has engaged the services of an architect who will be working on the design of the temporary library within the structure. The architect’s plans are expected to be finalized in 30 days, she added. The county’s Procurement Department also is working on a means of shortening the timeline to get renovations under way as soon as the lease agreement is signed, she noted.

Estimates on costs and the opening date of the library within the Hamilton Building probably will be available within about three weeks, she pointed out.

In response to concerns voiced by Council members, Lowery said, “We will be cleaning everything that will be used in the temporary library.” Anything that will be placed in storage for use in the new permanent location will be cleaned as well, she noted.

In further news from the county, Lowery referenced upcoming workshops designed for community residents to help plan the design of the new library: Two sessions will be held on Monday, March 21, at the Venice Community Center. The first will be from 10:30 a.m. to noon; the second, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

After learning of a persistent mold problem in the Venice Public Library, the County Commission voted on Jan. 12 to close the facility on Jan. 30, citing concerns about the potential ill effects on the health of patrons and county employees. Staff members — and the county’s health official — provided more details to the board during its Feb 9 regular meeting about why they felt the shuttering of the library’s doors were a necessity.

A photo in a Pure Air Control Services report to the county shows mold in Venice Public Library. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A photo in a Pure Air Control Services report to the county shows mold in Venice Public Library. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Both the Council and the Commission have been working since then to reach an agreement for the county to utilize the Hamilton Building as a temporary location, especially because of its accessibility on the island of Venice.

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo
County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

In advance of their Feb. 23 meeting, the Venice Council members received copies of a Feb. 12 letter from County Administrator Tom Harmer to Venice City Manager Edward F. Lavallee regarding what Harmer called “the terms upon which I would recommend that the Board of County Commissioners approve a lease arrangement.”

Harmer noted that the condominium units within the Hamilton Building proposed for the library space comprise about 9,475 square feet. The county also plans to use the common area, he wrote.

The initial term of the lease would be three years. If the county needed to extend the period, Harmer suggested two one-year options.

As for rent: Harmer proposed $10 per year and no security deposit.

“All interior modifications and improvements will be designed and made at County’s sole discretion,” he added. “County will be responsible for cost of the construction of the interior of the building,” he wrote, and for the painting of the exterior and signage.

The city would be responsible for the repair and/or replacement of the roof and any air conditioning units, Harmer continued. The county would pay for all utilities and handle routine maintenance.

Regarding parking: Harmer proposed that the city allow county staff and library patrons to use the city-owned lot on the south side of the structure as well as the area of grass under the U.S. 41 bridge, adjacent to the site. He added that if the city determines the need to install a barrier or buffer between the parking area and the bike trail that runs parallel to the Hamilton Building, “the City will be responsible for the cost.”

Assistant City Manager Len Bramble provided the Council members with 17 items he referenced as the city’s counter to Harmer’s terms. Among those was the statement that if the county’s use of the Hamilton Building necessitates “changes to outside existing conditions, such as the location or number of [Americans with Disabilities Act] parking spaces, the County will incur the costs to make such modifications with City approval.”

In regard to the parking terms Harmer noted, the counter proposal says use of the area under the U.S. 41 bridge is subject to approval by the Florida Department of Transportation “and City’s ability to construct and maintain the lot.” Furthermore, the counter offer points out that the existing fire lane must be kept in place. Finally, it says, “City and County to collaborate on delineation of Hamilton Building vehicle parking versus Venetian Waterway Trail and design elements.”

In light of comments made earlier in the Council session, Bramble said he also would include in the counter offer the necessity of the county’s undertaking and completing the environmental testing within the Hamilton Building.

Venice City Councilman Bob Daniels. File photo
Venice City Councilman Bob Daniels. File photo

Earlier, Councilman Bob Daniels pointed out, “This is a crisis … We are going to fast-track things. … Hopefully, we will have a facility ready for the city shortly.”

Public meetings and public access

During her comments on Feb. 23, Lowery also noted the expansion of temporary library facilities in the Venice Community Center, where county staff originally placed a kiosk to assist patrons after the Venice Public Library closed.

A Feb. 17 email from Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of libraries and historical resources, pointed out that library staff will move to a larger space in the Venice Community Center that will permit the addition of computers; a larger browsing collection; magazines and newspapers; and a printer/copier.

Kalajian continued, “Will work diligently to complete this — adding connectivity, installing shelving, moving computers, cleaning and moving collection, etc.”

“They’re going to work very fast [on that],” Lowery told the Council.

In regard to residents’ request for a shuttle from the site of the Venice Public Library to the Jacaranda Public Library, located at 4143 Woodmere Park Blvd. in Venice, Lowery said details about those plans would be announced soon.

The Jacaranda Public Library is on Woodmere Boulevard in Venice. Image contributed by Jacaranda Public Library to Wikimedia Commons
The Jacaranda Public Library is on Woodmere Park Boulevard in Venice. Image contributed by Jacaranda Public Library to Wikimedia Commons

In her email, Kalajian noted that county staff is working to provide two shuttle runs one day a week from the Venice Community Center to the Jacaranda Library.

Councilwoman Jeanette Gates told her colleagues she watched the Feb. 9 County Commission meeting, adding that Commissioner Christine Robinson — who represents South County interests on the board — is in support of the shuttle service. “She really felt it was an obligation of the county,” Gates added.

In response to another question raised on Feb. 9, Lowery alluded again to Kalajian’s Feb. 17 email: The Sarasota County School District has declined to extend the school day to allow students who used to go to Venice Public Library to stay in the school media centers until parents could pick them up.

However, Kalajian added, “School staff provided information regarding the afterschool care program and recommends that parents take advantage of that option.” She included the following details:

  • Hours of operation are from 3:15 to 6 p.m.
  • Those students eligible to participate in the program are kindergartners through fifth-graders.
  • The fee is $7 per day; limited scholarships and a sliding scale are available.

For more information about the aftercare programs at the schools, a parent, grandparent or caregiver may stop by the individual school or call 486-2111, Kalajian noted.

The Council members should feel free to contact her, Lowery said, if they have more questions.

Venice City Councilwoman Jeanette Gates. Image courtesy City of Venice
Venice City Councilwoman Jeanette Gates. Image courtesy City of Venice

Gates also reminded her colleagues during the meeting that Commissioner Robinson had requested the Council’s joint annual session with the County Commission — set for Thursday, March 31 — be extended from half a day to a full day, to allow plenty of opportunity for discussion about the library issues. “And I think that’s a really good move,” Gates added.

The meeting will start at 9 a.m. at the Venice Community Center.

Gates acknowledged community concerns about the series of events that led to the closing of the Venice Public Library and continuing distress among residents — made plain that morning by numerous speakers. “I can’t fix history,” she said. However, she told her colleagues, “I can rely on elected officials in the county to correct whatever happened with that.”

She added that she is looking forward to seeing library services provided in a more expansive temporary location, as well as the process that will lead to a new, permanent facility.

Councilman Rich Cautero alluded to comments about the lack of communication from county staff in the period leading up to the library’s closure. “Obviously, this … outreach process … was totally inefficient,” he said. “The citizens deserve better.”

Historical designation?

Sarabeth Kalajian talks with Venice Mayor John Holic during the Jan. 15 Convocation of Governments. File photo
Sarabeth Kalajian talks with Venice Mayor John Holic during the Jan. 15 Convocation of Governments. File photo

Another matter reflective of public angst over the closing of the Venice Public Library appeared in recent county email exchanges, The Sarasota News Leader learned.

On Feb. 18, Kalajian notified Lowery that the county’s Historical Resources Department staff had “received an inquiry about designating the Venice Public Library as a historical building. The caller was referred to the County by Venice staff.”

Later on Feb. 18, Kalajian emailed Lowery again: “I spoke with James Hagler [director of historical resources for the City of Venice] at Venice Museum and Archives. He said [the public library facility] would not qualify. Evidently James and the staff there already received a few calls.”

Kalajian concluded her email, “We agreed to keep exchanging information.”