Making the motion, Commissioner Moran calls for ‘plenty of public input’ on proposal during future board meeting
Exactly two weeks after Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert made a different motion on the topic, Commissioner Michael Moran this week won the support of his other three colleagues to authorize county staff to start negotiating with the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association over the future of the Florida House.
Formally, Moran specified county talks with the Business Industry Association (MSBIA) “and/or any nonprofit that’s affiliated with [it]” to take over the county’s lease of the 4454 S. Beneva Road site in Sarasota where the Florida House stands. That lease will end on June 30, 2027, county staff has noted.
Further, Moran called for allowing the MSBIA or the nonprofit to move the building before that lease expires.
The MSBIA has created a nonprofit organization called the Building Industry Institute.
A county sublease with the Florida House Foundation Inc., which allows for the structure to carry out its mission, ends on July 9 of this year.
Moran further stressed that he would like to allow for “much public comment” during a commission discussion on a regular meeting agenda. Anyone who has “a beef” with the proposal would be able to express that view “and be heard” during the meeting, he pointed out.
“My effort is to get this [issue] off dead center,” Moran explained before he made his motion. “You guys have been getting a lot of communication from several different folks,” he told his colleagues.
If county staff members are not able to negotiate reasonable terms, Moran continued, “Why are we even talking about [this]?” He added, “No harm, no foul,” if the discussions with the MSBIA cannot be concluded successfully.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger seconded the motion. “I think it’d be good to kind of bring this to some sort of decision process,” he said.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler also voiced support for the motion. However, he indicated uncertainty that he would continue to feel that way if the negotiations resulted in plans to move the Florida House to one of the county’s “Quads” parcels.
“The only opposition that I’ve seen to this,” he said, came in the form of what he called rumors about the potential relocation of the structure to the Celery Fields. He called those rumors “probably false.”
The MSBIA proposal in a June 7, 2021 letter from its CEO, Jon Mast, to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis — plus comments from MSBIA board member Teresa Mast, who addressed the commissioners at an Open to the Public comment period during the commission’s Feb. 8 meeting — included the desire to move the Florida House to one of the Quads. Those four county-owned parcels are adjacent to the Celery Fields.
Although the latter area officially is a county stormwater management project, it also is an internationally known bird-watching destination.
In October 2020, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve a conservation easement over the Southwest, Southeast and Northeast Quads, in collaboration with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, which is based in Osprey, and the Sarasota Audubon Society.
Still, Ziegler added of the MSBIA leaders on April 26, “I think they would be good stewards of [the Florida House].” He noted that they are “pretty passionate” about their proposal for the Florida House.
Detert said she objected to Moran’s motion. “We haven’t had a lot of meetings about it,” she began. “We probably need to.”
Then she reminded her colleagues that, on April 12, she called for a staff presentation to the board no later than May regarding options the board members have in regard to the future of the Florida House.
She said she believed all of the commissioners have met with MSBIA representatives one-on-one. “You’re kind of writing a motion in favor of one corporation,” she told Moran.
No motion was needed on April 26, Detert pointed out, because of the direction the commissioners gave County Administrator Lewis on April 12. Staff needs to bring the board members options, she added.
Based on his discussions with county staff members about the future of the Florida House, Moran said, he believes they need more specific direction than Detert provided on April 12.
If staff comes back with a proposal that the commissioners do not like, Moran added, “We can always say, ‘No.’ … I just think [the issue] needs to get beyond chitchat and speculative [discussions].”
Nonetheless, he pointed out, the MSBIA has established a nonprofit “for some specific career development related to the trades. I think they’re still finding their way in it.”
When Chair Alan Maio called for the vote on Moran’s motion, Detert repeated her objection to it. The motion passed 4-1.
The MSBIA versus Southface
On May 7, 2021, Mast, the CEO of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association, addressed his first letter about the organization’s interest in the Florida House to Maio.
“For the last several years Florida House Institute (FHI) has been working to reinvent themselves, moving away from their core mission of being a ‘model home’ to demonstrate new and innovative ways to be energy efficient,” Mast wrote. “This lack of focus has allowed the Florida House building to come into disrepair due to non-continuous operations and a severe lack of consistent maintenance.”
On Feb. 23, Amber Whittle, the new executive director of the Florida House, told the commissioners that, just in the past year, students in classes at the nearby Suncoast Technical College had gained more than 2,200 hours of hands-on training as they worked on the Florida House’s plumbing, electrical, and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] systems.
In his May 2021 letter, Mast added, “Historically, the Sarasota HBA [Home Builders Association] and its members helped build the Florida House building by donating materials, labor, and expertise in 1992 and years following. Again in 2007 when the Florida House building was moved to its current location, the Sarasota HBA membership donated materials, labor, and expertise in order to protect its investment in the building. Once again in 2012, the now combined Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association (MSBIA) membership donated matching resources such as materials, labor, and expertise for the remodel/rehab project when FHI received a grant from Sarasota County.”
Yet, as The Sarasota News Leader has reported, leaders of the Florida House Institute — which has become Southface Sarasota — have adamantly expressed opposition to the MSBIA proposal.
One individual — former Florida House director Matt Ross, who founded the company Eco$mart, in 1993, stressed to the commissioners during public comments on Feb. 23 that in his 29 years of working with the Florida House, he had “not seen the [MSBIA’s] presence at all.”
When the Florida House suffered through “lean times” in the early 2000s, Ross continued, “Where was the builders’ association? They weren’t there.”
The MSBIA has been opposed to the very green-building standards that the Florida House demonstrates, Ross emphasized.
In his May 7 letter to Maio, MSBIA CEO Mast objected to the partnership that the Florida House Institute forged with Southface Institute, which — he noted — is a nonprofit headquartered in Atlanta. He also emphasized the MSBIA’s opposition to the Southface proposal to take over the Florida House Institute lease of the building on Beneva Road.
Not only is Southface an outside organization, Mast continued, but it has “no roots in Sarasota County. Southface’s plan is to move here and absorb a failed foundation in order to obtain the Florida House building. This direct benefit to Southface would be gleaned from the many donations of local businesses and governments,” Mast continued. “This proposed assumption of the Florida House lease and sub-lease would be unjust and egregious.”
Mast also stressed that “MSBIA members are well known throughout the state of Florida and the nation as strong advocates of the green building movement. We have members that are capable and willing to keep the facility maintained and up-to-date on building products that are green. We have the ability to teach the building community and the community at large about the National Green Building Standard (NGBS), which is the gold standard for green building in the nation. MSBIA members are unquestionably green and environmentally sensitive, which is the original mission of the Florida House.”
Rebuffing Florida House leaders’ proposals
In a Sept. 29, 2020 letter to Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham, Charles C. Reith, then-president of the Florida House Institute board, wrote about the fact that, in 2019, the Florida House “entered a strategic partnership with Southface Institute,” a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, “with an aligned mission, local experience, and national stature. Southface has a history in Sarasota,” Reith continued, noting that it had “implemented a recent grant” from the Charles and Marjery Barancik Foundation and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation “to cut utility spending by The Boys and Girls Club and other local non-profits …”
Further, Reith explained, “We have been working on a joint business plan that includes a potential merger between the Florida House and Southface to integrate the organizations’ leadership, increase efficiency and bring more of Southface’s considerable resources and programs into our community.”
Reith then asked that the county consider three changes to its sublease agreement with the Florida House. Among those was assigning the ownership rights to Southface “if and when the County’s lease with the School Board ends.”
In a May 26, 2021 response to Reith, Cunningham denied the request.
Another letter included in the March 14 staff report on the status of the Florida House came from Tyrone Rachal, chair of the Florida House Institute and Southface. Dated Feb. 8 and sent to Chair Maio, it asked that the county extend the sublease of the Florida House for five more years. The letter also pointed out that the Florida House Institute “became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Southface Energy Institute” in 2021.
Additionally, the Sarasota County School Board, which owns the land where the Florida House stands, has let county staff know of its interest in securing ownership of the Florida House, as school district programs have made use of the facilities, especially over the past year. Superintendent Brennan W. Asplen III laid out the School Board’s interest in a March 2 letter to County Administrator Lewis.