Proposed sale of Florida House to nonprofit associated with building industry organization to be on March 5 County Commission agenda

Commissioner Moran had won his colleagues’ approval in September 2023 to launch the transfer of ownership

This is a view of the Florida House, as shown in the 2022-2024 strategic plan for its operations. Image from the Southface Sarasota website

As one of the Consent Agenda items for their March 5 regular meeting, the Sarasota County commissioners will be asked to declare the former Florida House structure in Sarasota surplus property and sell it for $10 to the Business Industry Institute, a nonprofit established by the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association.

The Consent Agenda generally includes business matters considered to be routine. Although any commissioner can pull an item from that agenda for discussion, the board members typically approve the Consent Agenda without any comments.

Anyone wishing to provide remarks about a Consent Agenda item has to do so during the Open to the Public comment period at the beginning of a meeting.

The March 5 session will begin at 9 a.m. at the R.L Anderson Administration Center, which is located at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice.

A county staff memo in the March 5 agenda packet reminds the commissioners that, on Sept. 12, 2023, they voted unanimously to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to work with the Sarasota County School Board and what was then the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association (MSBIA) “to transfer ownership interest of the Florida House to the MSBIA or any other non-profit entity of their choosing.”

The MSBIA has changed its name to the Suncoast Builders Association, its website notes. Jon Mast of Sarasota remains its CEO, the website shows. His wife, Teresa, a Republican candidate for the District 1 County Commission seat that commission Chair Michael Moran will give up in November, because of term limits, serves on the Suncoast Builders Association Board. She is the owner of a general contracting company called the Davin Group.

Image from the Suncoast Builders Association website

In 2021, the MSBIA created the Building Industry Institute “for the purpose of providing educational programs, workforce development, and the promotion of green/sustainable construction,” Jon Mast informed the commissioners via letter in June 2021. Mast and other MSBIA representatives have been seeking since 2021 to acquire the Florida House structure.

This is Jon Mast’s June 7, 2021 letter to then-Commission Chair Alan Maio. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The organization Candid, which provides information about, and IRS 990 forms for, nonprofit organizations, shows that the Building Industry Institute was approved for 501(3)(c) status in 2022. The Institute’s address is listed as 6650 Professional Parkway, Suite 102, in Lakewood Ranch.

As for the Institute’s mission, its Candid page says the following: “provide information to builders and members related with the building industry. Monthly member meetings to discuss topics that affect the building industry, to educate the members on these topics, to present knowledgeable speakers for the industry and to promote the Association Code of Ethics.”

A separate section of that Candid page notes, “This profile needs more info.” Under the heading Operations, the webpage adds, “This organization has no recorded board members.”

The Building Industry Institute’s 2022 IRS 990 form — which is required of nonprofits — lists Jon Mast as the CEO, while it names Gregg Carlson as president; Robbie Close as vice president; and Ray Turner as treasurer.

The Suncoast Builders Association says Gregg Carlson was immediate past president of that organization’s board in the 2022-23 year. His LinkedIn account shows that he was vice president of operations for William Ryan Homes, in the “Greater Tampa Bay Area,” from October 2021 to October 2022. Prior to that, Carlson served for four years and 10 months as CEO of Lee Wetherington Homes in Sarasota. Since June 2021, his account notes, Carlson has been a residential construction professional.

Robert Close of Sherwin Williams was president of the Suncoast Builders Association Board of Directors in 2022-23, that organization’s website points out.

Ray Turner is a Realtor with a firm located on Main Street in Sarasota.

The 990 form lists no income or assets. The form was prepared by the Robinson Gruters and Roberts CPA firm in Venice. The Gruters in that firm is state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota. The Robinson is former School Board member and former Sarasota County GOP Chair Eric Robinson.

This is a section of the 2022 IRS 990 form for the Building Industry Institute in Lakewood Ranch. Image courtesy of Candid

A months-long process

As The Sarasota News Leader has reported, Commissioner Moran stressed to his colleagues on Sept. 12, 2023 that he did not want to see any more taxpayer money dedicated to the Florida House.

Although the county owns the building itself, the School Board owns the parcel located at 4454 S. Beneva Road in Sarasota where the house stands.

The Florida House was created as a showcase for green — or, sustainable — building practices. On its website, Southface Sarasota points out that while it “operated the Florida House for only a fraction of the green demonstration home’s history, we made a significant, lasting impact. In 2021, Suncoast Technical College students logged 2,500 hours learning green trade skills with us. We hosted thousands of community volunteer hours, hundreds of educational tours, a lecture series, a new podcast, and multiple partner showcase events. In partnership with Transition Sarasota, Southface Sarasota donated more than 500 pounds of organic produce from our garden to the Church of the Palms food pantry too!”

During the September 2023 commission discussion, Commissioner Mark Smith suggested that the county turn over the Florida House to the School Board. “I agree that we shouldn’t use any [more] of our tax money on this,” Smith added. “I think we should cut our losses.”

“I agree,” Commissioner Joe Neunder responded. “I think it’s time to cut bait here.”

If the Office of the County Attorney and County Administration proved to be unable to achieve success in their negotiations over the future of the building, Moran told his colleagues, county staff could inform the commissioners of that result and the commissioners could decide what to do next.

(The News Leader is unaware of any public discussion of the issue since then.)

In June 2022 Brennan W. Asplen III, then the superintendent of the Sarasota County Schools, denied a request that the commission had made to sublease the Florida House site to the MSBIA.

The agreement between the county and the School Board included a clause that called for the School Board to approve any sublease, except to the Florida House Institute “or another, similar, appropriate community based organization acceptable to [the School Board].”

Twice, Asplen also wrote county administrative staff to convey the fact that the school district was “ardently interested in keeping the [Florida House] in its existing location.” Asplen added in a March 2, 2022 letter, “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 community, and beyond.”

Subsequent to the MSBIA request to take possession of the Florida House, and Asplen’s overtures for the School Board to take ownership of it, the county terminated its lease with the Florida House Institute, which had become Southface Sarasota.

Then, in September 2022, the School Board members voted to terminate the lease of the site to the county, effective as of September 2023.

In accord with Section 11 of the lease agreement, the county would have one year to remove the Florida House structure from the site, as noted on the Sept. 6, 2022 School Board meeting agenda.

The lease was set to expire on June 30, 2027, as county administrative staff had told the county commissioners.

At one point during the Sept. 12, 2023 meeting, Commissioner Neunder asked whether the Office of the County Attorney would be able to expedite the process of transferring ownership of the building to the MSBIA.

“We will move as fast as we can,” County Attorney Joshua Moye replied. Ultimately, all five commissioners supported Moran’s motion, which Commissioner Neil Rainford had seconded.

The March 5 county staff memo in the agenda packet notes, “As indicated in the Bill of Sales, the [Business Industry] Institute acknowledges that the [Florida House building] must be removed from its current location on the School Board’s property, and that the [site], as near as practicable, be restored to its original preconstruction condition, and that [the Institute] shall solely bear any and all associated costs.”

A red balloon marks the location of the Florida House. It is close to both the Suncoast Technical College and the Sarasota County School District’s Polytechnical High School. Image from Google Maps

The memo also points out, “The Institute agrees to maintain an Umbrella Policy … with limits not less than $1,000,000 [per] occurrence and in the aggregate to cover any and all claims, actions, damages, fees, fines, penalties, defense costs arising from the obligations contained in this Bill of Sale. The Institute agrees to endorse the County as additional insured on the [umbrella] Policy on a primary and non-contributory basis.”