Selection Committee Pulls Plug on Winter Park Space Museum

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The latest plan to rehab the old Winter Park library was voted down during a meeting of the RFP selection committee, made up of commissioners Kris Cruzada, Marty Sullivan, Todd Weaver, Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio, and Mayor Phil Anderson.

The proposal, submitted by SOAR Museum (Saving Our Aerospace Resources), combined a first-floor space museum with a second-floor learning center and a third-floor business incubator. A 60-year lease with five, 10-year options was also proposed with the company assuming all expenses in bringing the 43-year-old building up to code and completing renovations over the first two years. A $125,000 lease rate would begin on the third year and double after five years. A 5% increase would then be applied at every five-year interval.

The museum was one of only two proposals received during a six-month solicitation period with evaluations based on project concept, financial considerations, preservation of the building, community support, and local business use. According to city staff, the second proposal received did not meet the standards for consideration.

The selection committee met in Commission Chambers on Jan. 11 to discuss the plan. While members were in favor of transforming the existing building into an educational resource, the consensus was against the financial considerations outlined in the proposal. Mayor Anderson began the discussion by expressing concerns with the proposed lease.

“I had hoped to see a different kind of financial proposition,” he said. “I was hoping to see a much shorter term to the lease that gave the city the option to reuse the land for a different purpose at some point.”

Vice Mayor DeCiccio concurred with Anderson, adding that the rent was less than the last proposal, submitted by Harbert Realty Services of Florida, which was rejected for its inability to meet the city’s financial expectations. “It would be difficult for us to go forward having rejected (a proposal) that would pay us more.”

Commissioner Cruzada said he was looking for more information on the scientific aspect of the educational programming as well as additional information on local financial partners. “I do applaud that you’re trying to preserve the existing building,” he said, addressing members of SOAR Museum who sat in on the meeting. “But I wasn’t sure if you knew the parameters of the building or what you’d be up against as far as trying to rehab or renovate.”

Despite the trepidation expressed by his fellow committee members, Commissioner Weaver was in favor of allowing SOAR the opportunity to refurbish on their timeframe. “Whether the city does it, or any other developer does something with the building, or demolishes it, it’s going to take some upfront expense,” he said. “Considering this is a nonprofit, giving them the two years to use their funds to rehab the building is reasonable.”

“This is a highly visible, very significant city asset,” Anderson said of the 460 E. New England Ave. property, adding that the city should only entrust it to an organization with deep financial resources. “I’m not sure I would commit – especially not commit on a long-term basis – to an organization that didn’t have that kind of track record.”

The SOAR Museum proposal featured a list of sponsors and affiliates who are also listed as supporters on its website. However, funding sources and a projected cost of renovations were not included. Harbert Realty Services, in its proposal, estimated $14 million for a complete building renovation.

While he was not in attendance, Commissioner Sullivan’s comments were read aloud and included concerns with the lack of organization and development in the project concept.

The committee had the option of voting to close the solicitation with no award, or to move the proposal forward in the selection process. Selection committee meeting rules did not allow for a Q&A with the SOAR representatives in attendance, and two members of the community spoke in favor of the proposal during public comments.

Before the vote, Anderson reiterated his concerns over the financials and Cruzada expressed disappointment in the lack of solicitation responses. “Without any other competition, I don’t want us to just tie ourselves to the one bid,” he said. DeCiccio agreed with Cruzada and Anderson while Weaver asked the committee to allow SOAR to move forward and present a more detailed financial plan in the next phase of the process.

The proposal was voted down by a 3-1 majority. Options for the library property and ways the city may move forward will be part of a future City Commission meeting agenda.

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