County will rent the property for $1 million per year while new facility constructed on county land on Cattlemen Road
Almost exactly 23 months after they first made their intentions plain, the Sarasota County commissioners voted unanimously this week to sell the downtown Sarasota County Administration Center, and two adjacent parking lots, to Benderson Development Co. LLC for $25 million.
The other two parcels stand at 1646 and 1703 Morrill St.
The agenda item took less than 10 minutes of the board’s time on Nov. 15.
The county will lease back the property for $1 million a year for four years, until a new facility has been completed on county-owned land on Cattlemen Road, next to the Emergency Operations Center.
Chair Alan Maio was ready to pass the gavel to Vice Chair Christian Ziegler, so Maio could make the motion, when Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, appeared at the podium to provide what Osterhoudt said would be a short presentation.
Maio acceded to Osterhoudt, who reminded the board members that they last discussed the topic of the sale on Sept. 28. That day, they ended up voting unanimously to authorize staff to negotiate with Benderson, which had presented the best of six offers for the property, Osterhoudt noted at the time.
Prior to that vote, however, Commissioner Nancy Detert voiced concerns about the $25-million offer, adding that she felt Benderson should be responsible for any major repairs to the building standing at 1660 Ringling Blvd. Landlords typically deal with such issues, she stressed.
Additionally during that discussion, Commissioner Christian Ziegler expressed worries that, with an annual lease, the board members could end up having to keep paying rent after they moved out of the structure.
On Nov. 15, Osterhoudt noted that the lease would be month-to-month, with no rent escalator from year to year. County staff can provide six months’ notice to terminate that lease, he added, and the county would be entitled to reimbursement of any prepaid rent, on a pro rata basis.
Moreover, Osterhoudt continued, Benderson will be responsible for the maintenance of the roof and the structure, so the county would not have to entertain the prospect of replacing that roof.
“It’s also a timely closing process,” he said, as staff and Benderson expect to conclude the deal before the end of the year. That fast timeline was another facet of the Sept. 28 discussion, Osterhoudt pointed out.
In the meantime, the company will put down a $2-million deposit, he said.
As soon as Osterhoudt completed his remarks, Maio did pass the gavel to Ziegler and made the motion to approve the deal. “Compliments to staff,” Maio said and then referenced the board’s December 2019 retreat discussion about selling the property: “Apparently, I was more demonstrative than I recall [in saying,] ‘Get us out of this building!’” and pounding on the table. Those were “probably the smartest words I have said in seven years,” Maio added on Nov. 15, referencing his tenure on the commission.
Then Maio pointed out, “Go up to our sixth floor, in case you think we’re working in the Taj Mahal, and see what I call five upside down umbrellas, 8-foot by 8-foot squares, channeling the water that’s leaking through the roof, funneled through a hose into giant containers. There is no longer any time to wait on this.”
Later, he added, “Every problem that we know about has been disclosed to the buyer,” as it should have been.
During presentations to the commissioners in the months following that 2019 retreat discussion, county administrative staff explained that maintenance and renovations at the County Administration Center could cost as much as $32.5 million over 10 years and up to $49 million over 20 years.
Compliments to staff
On Nov. 15, Maio emphasized that the sale had taken less than two years, which “is a credit to our staff.” He added, “This was an incredibly, incredibly quick job.” Maio said he was not certain that the private sector could have achieved the conclusion of such negotiations with as much speed and accuracy.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, who seconded Maio’s motion for the sale, concurred with Maio’s comments. Cutsinger also applauded the lease terms, including the facts that the rent would not rise over the four-year period and that Benderson would be responsible for the roof, “which is a big-ticket item …”
“I, too, am very satisfied with the end result here,” Commissioner Detert announced. “This is the best offer we’ve received. I’m happy to support it.”
Not only was she pleased that Benderson had agreed to handle the maintenance, she said, she also was happy that the company was willing to raise its offer to $25 million, since it originally proposed buying the three parcels for $20 million.
Nonetheless, during the past two discussions about offers for the property, Detert voiced consternation that the purchaser likely would be able to sell the parcels for $60 million to $80 million in the future, given the demand for land in downtown Sarasota.
(During a 2020 discussion, then-Commissioner Charles Hines talked of the potential of a condominium development on the site, with the residents able to walk to restaurants and shops, among other amenities in the area.)
In responding to Detert’s concerns about what she characterized as offers that were too low, Maio had stressed the potential for a years-long process in rezoning the land to facilitate residential or other types of development on the property. He had underscored his worries about the extra county expenses for maintenance during that time.
On Nov. 15, Commissioner Ziegler reminded the public that he originally was opposed to constructing a new administration center, just because that would be an expenditure of tax funds for a government building. However, he also referenced the maintenance concerns at 1660 Ringling Blvd. Given the potential expense over coming years, he added, “It’s a no-brainer” to sell the property.
During a presentation earlier this year, Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Department, told the board members that staff initially would plan on a 120,000-square-foot, four-story building at 1301 Cattlemen Road. That would cost about $72 million, she said on May 18.
The design would enable staff to add another 70,000-square-foot, four-story structure to the site, if demand for extra space necessitated that.