Winter Park’s empty state office building will stay empty for the foreseeable future after the City Commission voted 3-2 to not allow a Winter Park architecture firm to lease the building on Jan. 24.
That firm, RLF Architects, has been in business in Winter Park for 75 years, and was looking to relocate to the sprawling three-wing building at the corner of Morse Boulevard and Denning Drive.
Now some commissioners fear the 130-employee firm may move to Baldwin Park after the both sides refused to close the gap between the price the city would accept and what commercial development firm CEI would be willing to pay to lease the property.
The city had asked for a lease agreement for $3.5 million for 50 years or about $230,000 above the appraised value from the Orange County Property Appraiser.
“We worked with them more than seven months, telling them what the minimum dollar amount was, and they couldn’t meet it,” Bradley said. “They couldn’t meet it for a lot of reasons.”
Bradley said that the deal was a good one, but that CEI never met the city’s figure.
“It was more than a sweetheart deal,” Bradley said. “It was a giveaway.”
Commissioner Phil Anderson agreed, voting against signing the lease.
“I just didn’t think they were willing to give us adequate compensation,” Anderson said.
But the deal and its failure to be closed during the Jan. 24 City Commission meeting frustrated two commissioners, who said that the city stood to lose a valuable business and a substantial amount of money.
Commissioner Carolyn Cooper said that RLF was a valuable business to keep in the city.
Commissioner Beth Dillaha agreed, saying some on the Commission discounted the value of keeping a large, high-paying employer in the city.
“They’re forgetting the value of retaining the 130 employees from that business,” Dillaha said. “Think about the money they spend in our community, eating in restaurants, going to shops and buying homes in our community. That money will go someplace else.”
Dillaha said that CEI had met all of the city’s terms except for the lease price.
“If you look at the original terms that CEI offered us, they’re very different from the final terms,” Dillaha said. “In the end, CEI met every one of our terms. If we’re $100,000 or $200,000 apart, and they’ve met every other criteria we wanted, that’s not too bad.”
Bradley said that the city has time to wait for a higher bidder.
“I didn’t think it was in the city’s best interest to give it away to somebody,” Bradley said. “There’s no gun to our head to do that right now.”
Dillaha said that RLF could be in danger of leaving the city after a deal gone bad. In the meantime, the Commission is preparing for a meeting on Feb. 14 that would include a discussion of financial incentives to keep businesses from leaving Winter Park.
“This [lease deal] would have cost us zero dollars,” Dillaha said. “This is the kind of deal that cities and counties are killing for.
“Now we’re going to talk about an economic incentive program to pay companies to stay in Winter Park. It would pay $3,000 per employee to keep a company that has high-paying jobs. If we had done that to RLF, we’d have paid them $400,000 to stay in the city.”