County to advertise formal solicitation for affordable housing proposals for property at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way

Assistant county administrator points out that Nov. 17 motion did not call for cessation of negotiations already underway with Miami firm

A graphic shows the property at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Tuttle Avenue, with Myrtle Street to the north. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert has continued to voice dissatisfaction with the direction in which staff has been proceeding on a proposed affordable housing development on county land located at 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Sarasota.

In less than 10 minutes on Nov. 17, she won her colleagues’ unanimous support to take a new tack.

Detert made a motion calling for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis “to take the appropriate steps to create a competitive public process for proposals to maximize the options” for an affordable/workforce housing project “or other creative housing opportunities” on the site.

Later, Deter suggested the potential of a tiny house community — an idea she has broached in the past — or other innovative proposals, including an artists colony. “As long as it’s housing,” she added, “I’m willing to take a look at it.”

As a result, county staff likely will advertise a formal Invitation to Negotiate (ITN), Lewis said.

Commissioner Alan Maio was quick to second Detert’s motion. However, he told Lewis he did not want staff to take a year to get back to the board with proposals as a result of the competitive process.

Lewis responded that he felt the ITN — or a comparable solicitation — could be advertised for 30 days.

Commissioner Nancy Deter. File image

“Thirty days sounds maybe too quick to me,” Detert told Lewis.

“Forty-five days would be the maximum, in my opinion,” Lewis replied, as the solicitation would not be as structured as a Request for Proposals or a formal bid process. “I will get with our team and make sure we do it the best way possible,” he added.

During two previous board meetings, Detert expressed reservations about the founder and CEO of the Miami firm, Woodwater Investments, which sent county staff an unsolicited proposal about 19 months ago for an affordable housing community on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way property. The firm’s design also encompassed commercial space — for restaurants, a grocery store and a pharmacy, most likely, based on images Woodwater provided — that Woodwater would like to build on the 114-acre site the county purchased in 2013 for a regional sports park.

On Nov. 4, Detert talked again of her concerns about staff’s dealing with Woodwater under the guidelines of a Florida Statute related to economic development. However, Chair Michael Moran was the one who launched that discussion, noting that he had received phone calls after the board’s Oct. 6 update on the negotiations.

Other people had ideas about the property, Moran said on Nov. 4.

As a result, the board members that day ended up asking County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht to create a timeline that would allow for the submission of other unsolicited proposals for the site. County Administrator Lewis added that any new proposal coming in under the same state economic development law, Florida Statute 125.045, would be brought to the commissioners for consideration, just as staff had handled the Woodwater offer.

During that discussion, Detert and Moran also focused on their dissatisfaction with the fact that Woodwater had proposed paying the county only about $300,000 more than the $2.2 million the county spent on the land.

A new approach

On Nov. 17, Detert reminded her colleagues during her board report, “We’ve heard from other people” about interest in the 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive property in Newtown. They have said, “‘I could do better’” than the Woodwater proposal, she added.

Some people had offered “unusual ideas, even innovative ideas,” Detert pointed out.

“Rather than to make staff continue working with one guy” — whose plan “we might not even agree with” after the negotiations, Detert said, she preferred a public process for proposals.

After she made her motion and Commissioner Maio seconded it, Detert pointed out, “It doesn’t limit us to anything. It doesn’t limit us to one proposal from one guy from Miami,” referring to Woodwater Investments’ founder and CEO, Barron Channer.

Barron Channer is the founder and CEO of Woodwater Investments. Image from the firm’s website

With a solicitation process, she continued, “I think that opens it up to give us a better shot [for] the people who live here who have ideas.”

“It gives some direction to staff,” she said of her motion, “’cause if I were them, I’d be thinking, ‘Am I supposed to still be working on this one idea?’”

(In response to a Sarasota News Leader question about that comment, Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson, who has been responsible for the negotiations with Woodwater, pointed out that the motion the commission approved on Nov. 17 did not specify that the negotiations with Woodwater should cease.)

(The News Leader also made multiple attempts to reach Channer or another representative of Woodwater Investments and received no response.)

“Great motion,” Commissioner Maio said after Detert concluded her comments. “That’s the proper way to do this …”

Because the commissioners have been hearing from developers interested in the 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way site, he said, a solicitation is preferable to the board members’ “discerning which one [is best]” as part of their public meetings. “It’s inappropriate for us to do [this] in public. That’s for our staff to do.”

County Administrator Lewis suggested that staff could issue a solicitation for the 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way property in a manner similar to its advertising an ITN for an affordable housing project on county land located at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. In the latter situation, he noted, the commissioners agreed to put the property on the county’s surplus list. “I think we can use that [process] as the baseline and go pretty quickly,” he added, referring to the solicitation for the Newtown site.

This is a section of the Invitation to Negotiate for the county property located at 4644 N. Tamiami Trail. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As a result of the ITN for the 4644 N. Tamiami Trail land, Lewis noted, staff had received six proposals.

Then he added that he did not believe it would take long to advertise the new solicitation and receive responses to it.

“Awesome,” Chair Michael Moran responded.

Moran suggested that some of the proposals for the Newtown property could include housing and sports fields, since the land originally was bought for a park with athletic facilities.

“It’s got to be housing-related,” Detert responded.

This graphic in the Woodwater Investments proposal shows examples of commercial tenants for the North Sarasota site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then, when Maio reminded her about earlier discussions of the “food desert” in the area of the 2501 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. site — meaning the lack of dining and grocery options for the surrounding neighborhood — Detert replied that if commercial aspects included in any new plan for the site were designed to serve the neighborhood, she would accept that.

“I’m just trying to send a loud message to the private sector,” Moran said, noting that he wanted developers to think of options that include more than housing.