New deal to sell county property at 20 N. Washington Blvd. in Sarasota wins commission approval

Versaille St. Germain LLC offered the county $3.3 million

A graphic shows the location of the 20 N. Washington Blvd. property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Feb. 12, 2014, then-Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta was eager to see a 115,000-square-foot, 150-room hotel rise on prime county acreage in downtown Sarasota.

The County Commission had entertained proposals for the purchase of its nearly 1-acre parcel at 20 N. Washington Blvd. On a 3-2 vote, the board finally gave its nod to the vision presented by Sarasota-based developer Rod Connelly’s firm, SHD Partners LLC. The deal was complex, however, as it called for the developer to pay the county only $958,862, which was $2.6 million lower than the county’s most recent appraisal of the land.

Under the terms of the agreement, SHD Partners not only would create a hotel, but it also would construct 86 parking spaces two blocks east, at 2051 Main St., to replace the spaces that would be lost on the hotel site. People often use the surface parking lot at 20 N. Washington while they conduct business with the Office of the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller, as the historic county courthouse stands just south of the property.

Then-Commissioners Nora Patterson and Christine Robinson voiced concerns over the prospect that the project — including construction of the new parking spaces — might not unfold as described.

Yet, Barbetta stressed, “We will have a property on the tax rolls.”

In other board discussions, Barbetta had been pressing staff to move forward with selling surplus property, to improve the county’s financial situation as it came out of the Great Recession.

For decades, the parcel at 20 N. Washington Blvd. has been used for surface parking. File photo

As it turned out, Robinson and Patterson were prescient. The SHD Partners proposal literally never rose from the ground. As a July 10, 2018 county staff memo put it, “SHD failed to meet the terms and conditions of the Exchange Agreement, and the transaction was terminated on May 1, 2015.”

Almost three years later — after further failure to find a way to close on a sale — the commissioners again were eyeing prime surplus acreage as they worked to plug projected budget holes. During a Nov. 28, 2017 budget workshop, staff noted of the 20 N. Washington Blvd. property in a PowerPoint presentation, “Multiple [Invitations to Negotiate] and proposals received since 2013,” but all had been rejected “(due primarily to lack of financing or proven financial capability).”

A chart shown to the commission noted that the market value of the property, based on a current appraisal, was $3,950,000. The zoning was Downtown Core, as specified in the City of Sarasota’s zoning code. That zoning also represented the “highest/best use zoning classification,” the chart said.

The City of Sarasota Zoning Code describes the Downtown Core district as “a very dense mixed-use urban area. … Non-residential uses are varied and include department stores, entertainment facilities, restaurants, offices and lodging uses. Ground floor retail is allowed everywhere and is mandatory on certain designated frontages. Building height shall be limited to a maximum of ten stories [except under certain circumstances].”

If the property could be sold for all $3,950,000, staff said, all the money would go into the county’s General Fund.

A July 2017 response to a county Invitation to Negotiate for the 20 N. Washington Blvd. property included this information. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The General Fund, Office of Financial Management staff routinely explains, is the county’s most constrained source of funding. Comprising all the property tax revenue the county receives — plus revenue from a few other sources — it pays for most of the operations of the constitutional officers — the elected officials such as Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Rushing and Sheriff Tom Knight — as well as operations of many county departments, including Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, and Libraries and Historical Resources.

On Nov. 28, 2017, Commissioner Charles Hines — who ended up voting for the SHD Partners’ proposal in 2014 — made the motion to direct staff to work with a commercial real estate broker to sell the 20 N. Washington Blvd. property with no restrictions regarding the replacement of the lost parking spaces. “Get it out there and get it sold,” Hines told then-Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho.

They finally are very close to doing that.

On July 10, in approving their Consent Agenda of routine business items, the commissioners authorized the sale of the property to Versaille St. Germain LLC for $3.3 million. The sales contract identifies Laurent Ron Gray as president of the company, based in Greenvale, N.Y., which is on the north shore of Long Island.

The latest initiative

L. Ronald S. Gray. Photo from the Schwartz Heslin Group website

The July 10 staff memo explained, “To maximize the sale’s proceeds, under the direction of county administration, staff elected to attempt to sell the property without broker services because the sales restrictions had been removed for the first time. In addition,” the memo continued, “staff had knowledge of ongoing interest in the property from parties who had expressed interest in the past. Therefore, staff published the solicitation for the bid sale on the County’s Real Estate Services webpage on January 3, 2018 with a minimum bid established at $3,800,000.”

The deadline for responses expired on Feb. 14, the memo noted, and the only bid staff received did not meet the minimum criteria.

As a result, the memo added, “In March 2018, staff interviewed commercial real estate brokers and selected John Harshman of Harshman & Company, Inc. to market and sell the County-owned property.”

After consultation with Harshman and administration, the memo said, the minimum bid was set at $3.1 million, and the property was put back on the market on April 19. The bid period closed on June 19, with one bid received.

The memo added that proceeds from the sale — “less closing costs and broker commission fee” — would go to the General Fund.

The contract calls for closing within 120 days of the effective date of the contract, unless both parties agreed to extend the timeline. It includes standard language allowing the buyer to undertake title examination and other due diligence.

However, the contract does stipulate that the county is selling the property in “‘as is’ condition.”

Gray of Versaille St. Germain signed the contract on June 14.

According to his LinkedIn account, Gray is the founder and has been chairman of The Laurent Hotel since January 2012. He also is managing director of the Schwartz Heslin Group, which is based in Latham, N.Y.; he joined the firm in 2014. The company website says Gray “brings more than 30 years of experience in investment banking, including having founded several investment banking boutiques including Intellian, Ashley Wells Dorr and Mill River Capital.”

The Florida Division of Corporations identifies Ron Gray — with a 1343 Main St., Sarasota, address (the location of The Palm Tower) — and Anthony Driscoll, with a Beachaven condominium complex address at 5858 Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key, as the managing members of an inactive Florida company called Mill River Capital LLC. The company was established in September 2010 and dissolved in September 2011, the records say.