The Village of Wellington will likely be the new owner of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre after members of the Wellington Village Council voted last week to approve the purchase.
At a special meeting Friday, Dec. 20, council members voted 4-1 to approve the purchase and designate Mayor Bob Margolis as executor of the contract.
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig cast the dissenting vote. Because the property had not yet been appraised for the sale, Gerwig wanted the item brought back before council members for a vote on the final contract.
“I’m not willing to abdicate my vote,” she said. “Whatever it takes to make this decision as a council, I think we have to do it. It’s not a matter of me wanting to kick the can down the road. It’s that we don’t have all the information in front of us.”
The 2.5-acre property, which currently houses 22,282 square feet of office space and is home to many local businesses, had three appraisals in 2011 with an average price of $4.8 million. Under the proposed agreement, Wellington would purchase the property for $5 million, and the owner, former County Commissioner Ken Adams, would donate $1 million back to the village.
Wellington plans to do its own appraisals and inspections, but Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said results would not be available until at least Friday, Dec. 27. The contract stipulates Wellington would buy the property “as is,” but council members could reconvene if there are additional issues.
Adams hopes to sell the property and make the donation in time to meet Dec. 31 tax deadlines, which means the village must close on the sale within days.
Vice Mayor Howard Coates was concerned about paying more than the appraised value for the property. “I don’t think public officials get sued for that,” Coates said, “but I wouldn’t want to be one of the public officials paying more than the appraised value.”
He suggested adding a provision to the contract that would stipulate that the village not pay more than the appraised value of the property.
“If it comes in a little lower than we think, we’ll take a hit on the charitable donation,” Coates said. “I would be prepared to support this if we could tie it to this council not paying more than what the appraised value is.”
Councilman Matt Willhite asked Coates whether there was a threshold at which he’d be willing to consider paying a bit more. “Even if the property appraises at $4.5 million and we pay $5 million, we’re getting $1 million back,” he said.
Coates said he didn’t want to misrepresent the agreement to taxpayers. “If we say we’re getting a $1 million donation, then the property has to appraise at $5 million for Mr. Adams to make $4 million,” he said. “I think we should be representing to the public what the true economics of this deal is.”
Gerwig said she would rather make a decision when she had actual numbers in front of her, along with inspection reports and other details that could affect the price and decision to purchase the property.
“Would it be possible to continue this meeting?” she asked.
But several other council members said they would be out of town for the holidays.
Cohen suggested council members approve the purchase of the site and authorize Margolis to execute the closing documents.
“They could then make a decision if there’s some reason not to close,” she said. “As far as the purchase price, that’s a difficult question to answer. We don’t have the information we’d like to make this decision.”
Councilman John Greene said that although not all the information was available, he trusts staff to execute a fair agreement.
“It’s a unique situation,” Greene said. “The gift that is being offered, because of the tax laws, is affecting the timing. This isn’t the ideal way of doing business, but I trust our staff to ensure this is done properly. This is the deal that is in front of us. I can tell you there’s probably interest from other parties who would love to get their hands on that property.”
Adams said he would rather see the village own the site. “I think the property and the business is worth considerably more than we’re talking here,” he said. “I want to see the Village of Wellington own it. I want to see the beach on the lakefront restored. With the success you’re having in your other projects, you’re going to run out of room in your town center.”
As part of the agreement, Wellington would also agree to hire three current employees of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre who have been there for many years.
Council members said they wanted to be sure the decision of which businesses are leasing in the building is a staff-level decision to remain politically neutral.
Village Manager Paul Schofield said the council could draft a policy listing the types of businesses desirable in the facility but stating that it would stay out of decisions on individual leases.
There were also concerns raised by the Wellington Chamber of Commerce that the purchase could evict them from their offices in the building, but council members cleared up any misconceptions.
Greene stressed that Wellington is not singling out any particular business. “This is not about going in and making changes to who is in the building,” he said. “But at the same time, we need to be fair to everyone.”
Cohen said that although the Wellington Chamber did not have a signed lease, there was an agreement between the parties to provide certain services for businesses in the complex in exchange for use of the office space.
Attorney Ronald Witkowski, representing Adams, said that the chamber space and utilities were paid for by Adams.
“In return, the chamber provides advertising and marketing services that otherwise Lake Wellington would be paying money for,” he said. “The chamber is also a business generator. New businesses coming in get exposed to the Lake Wellington Professional Centre, and that has been a good thing.”
Schofield said another business with a similar agreement is a computer repair company that has been providing technology support to the building in exchange for rent.
Cohen said the village would ask tenants without a written agreement to sign a lease at the standard rate for rent.
Coates made a motion to approve the purchase agreement and designate Margolis to execute the contract, which was seconded by Greene.
“If we decide not to do this now, Mr. Adams may sell it to some other entity, and it could be another decade before we are able to obtain what I think is the missing piece in this town center,” Coates said. “I understand the timing is accelerated. I don’t like it, but sometimes you have to roll with the flow.”
Coates added that he was comfortable that all tenants and employees would be protected.
“My motion presumes that the existing tenants and licensees will be protected and that those agreements will be honored,” he said. “If I felt for an instant that there was an ulterior motive to evict the Wellington Chamber, I wouldn’t support this. But I’m comfortable, and I think everyone gave their word that it isn’t the desire.”
The measure passed 4-1 with Gerwig opposed.
Gerwig said she supports buying the property but wants the council to have a say on the final sale agreement.
“I want to support this, because I agree that the property should be with the village,” she said. “I would love for that to happen, but I’m not willing to abdicate my vote with all the unknowns that are out there. It would be irresponsible of me at this point to accept this contract as written.”