VERO BEACH — The City of Vero Beach is again looking at a sweetheart deal to provide taxpayer-owned property for private use at bargain basement prices.
City officials sent a proposal to the recreation commission to consider allowing a private company to use land near the former Dodgertown complex at 43rd Avenue and Aviation Boulevard for a driving range. Tuesday, the group approved the idea and sent it back to the city for consideration, likely in May.
Although the city spent $9.95 million on the property eight years ago, the offer on the table is for the private company use part of the land for $1-per-year as long as the business cuts the grass on the entire 37-acre parcel.
Should the deal pass muster with the city recreation commission, the city council and the Federal Aviation Administration because of its proximity to the Vero Beach Airport, the tenants will also have to pay the electric bill for the small building on site once it is turned into a pro shop. The city currently stores equipment in the building and pays about $6,000 in electric costs.
The city says that between the electric bill and the grass cutting the deal will be worth about $23,000 a year.
But will it really be that much? The land is one of the most expansive pieces of vacant property owned by the city.
Taking the 1,361.78 acres that encompasses the airport property out of the picture, the city owns about 700 other acres of land. About 53 acres of that is vacant.
Businessman John Hendricks and golf pro Paul Thomas say they would like to sign a five year, $1-a-year lease with the city. The lease would also give both sides an option to tear up the paperwork and call it a day at any time with six months' notice.
The notion to get the property at well below a fire-sale price comes a little more than a month after Vero Beach 32963 pointed out how some well-heeled developers were far behind on payments for their lease with the city on the massive renovation project of the downtown old diesel plant.
David Croom and Phil Barth had not paid a penny to the city for the lease. They are more than $56,000 in arrears.
Mayor Craig Fletcher told Vero Beach 32963 in February he was shocked to learn Croom and Barth had not made any payments after being given years of free rent as a grace period for getting the property in order with the intent to one day sublease it. To date, Croom and Barth have not had any takers for the old diesel plant.
Like the large swath of land at 43rd Avenue and Aviation Boulevard that the city bought in 2005 with ambitions of turning it into some a park or recreation area like a golf course, the old diesel plant remains unused and unprofitable.
City Manager Jim O’Connor recently brought the matter of the driving range up at a city council meeting with the intentions of getting some direction from elected officials and to yet again let it be known that he is no friend of $1-a-year leases. In the past, he has said he doesn’t even like the leases for the non-profits, so when a private entity came forward, it almost seemed laughable.
Councilman Dick Winger said he would like to see a better use of the property or at least a use that could bring in some money for the city although he did not say he wouldn’t support the idea.
When O’Connor spoke of the plus side of the deal, he said the venture could benefit the city by off-setting the cost to cut the grass.
It takes at minimum two days to cut the 37 acres. The land under consideration gets cut about once a month.
O’Connor took a similar view about off-setting costs when Vero Beach 32963 asked him why the city just doesn’t break the lease with Croom and Barth on the old diesel plant. He said Croom cuts the grass.
If the city employee who cuts the grass near Dodgertown is still employed after a private company comes in and takes over some aspects of that employee’s job, wouldn’t the cost-saving come only in the fuel to power the lawnmowers?
O’Connor said last week he too has similar questions for the city’s public works department. He said he wants the department to put together a thorough review of some of these so-called cost-saving measures.
When asked if he was shocked that a private business would ask for free rent, O’Connor said last week he isn’t. The way he sees it if the idea of a small driving range takes off, perhaps that could open doors for a bigger venture and a renegotiated lease where perhaps the city may actually get some real dollars in hand.
Or the city could sell the land outright.
Chances though of the city making its money back appear slim to none though, said O’Connor.
The deal to buy the property from the Los Angeles Dodgers came at the direction of the 2005 city council when there was talk of a private developer buying the land and then building condominiums on it.
In June 2005, then city manager Jim Gabbard told the council members he met with the partners of the Dodgers and came up with a deal that everyone could be happy with.
“Mr. Gabbard stated that he knows for a fact that the Dodgers have higher offers for this property,” according to the minutes from the 2005 meeting. “He said if the city does not act now then the property will be sold and businesses and residential property built there.”
Apparently that was enough for the council who voted 5-0 in favor of the deal.
Eight years later, the city still owes about $7 million on the property.
As for the property’s current value, O'Connor said, it’s about one-seventh of the outstanding amount owed on the land.