Despite pleas from a number of business owners operating out of the facility, the Wellington Village Council voted Tuesday, Jan. 10 to begin the process of closing the Lake Wellington Professional Centre.
The process will give the 52 tenants in 66 leased offices, as well as 63 virtual clients, at the business suite facility approximately a year to find an alternative location.
Deputy Village Manager Tanya Quickel told the council that if the LWPC is to continue to operate, it will need approximately $500,000 in repair work. That includes $400,000 for a new roof and $75,000 to $100,000 for a new, modern phone system.
“Those are the two driving factors bringing up the discussion tonight,” Quickel said.
Neither expense is a surprise. The village bought the facility in December 2013 with the understanding that the roof was past its lifespan. Replacement has been delayed through repair work.
Now, the life of the LWPC appears to be drawing to a close, with the village set to repurpose the land as part of the Phase III expansion of the Town Center project.
When the village bought the facility for a net $4 million, it was primarily to gain control of the land, which abuts the Town Center site and the Wellington Promenade, for future expansion.
Approximately two dozen people addressed the council on the issue. All opposed the closure, particularly without the village first providing an alternative Wellington location for their businesses.
County Commissioner Sara Baxter said that the village should not close the LWPC.
“I am here on behalf of the small business owners who are potentially impacted by your decision here tonight,” Baxter said.
She ran for the Palm Beach County Commission last fall on a platform of putting more of a focus on small business owners.
“Please do not do this without finding a place for those businesses to go first before tearing down the building they currently exist in,” Baxter said.
Linda Braswell is an attorney who has operated out of the LWPC for 13 years.
“When I found this little gem of a building that sits on Lake Wellington, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “The building itself isn’t the prettiest building in Wellington, but it has an awesome atmosphere.”
She said that if the building closes down, she doesn’t have another place to go in Wellington and would have to relocate her practice to another community.
Diane Gutman of Wellington Cares said that closing the LWPC would negatively impact the senior population of Wellington. The local nonprofit houses its nonperishable food pantry program at the facility, as well as its meeting place for training programs.
“I will be forced to work from home, which would not be conducive to operating this valuable senior resource,” she said.
Attorney Dermot Mac Mahon operates his practice out of the LWPC. He noted that there are no other executive office suite locations in Wellington.
“I talked to the manager of the Nexus, who informed me that they technically have no available space, and they actually have a waitlist for vacancies there,” Mac Mahon said, referring to an office suite facility in suburban Lake Worth.
Wellington Chamber of Commerce President Scott Sweigart spoke on behalf of the chamber, which has its offices at the LWPC.
“The Lake Wellington Professional Centre has thrived under the village’s management,” he said. “Why would you not want to include this as just another cog in the wheel of our uniqueness and celebrate the success of a village-owned, boutique business product?”
Accountant Stuart Hack challenged the idea that rents at the LWPC are subsidized by the village.
“Although LWPC is owned by a municipality, our rents are not below market value for executive suites,” he said.
He noted that the Village of Wellington considers itself a “champion for businesses.”
“Demolishing the only executive suite offices in Wellington without a replacement doesn’t sound like a champion to me,” Hack said.
During council comments, Mayor Anne Gerwig asked the council to table the item until March to allow more time to come up with a plan for the closure, such as finding a partner to work with on a replacement for the LWPC.
“I don’t want to send the letter out,” she said, referring to a draft eviction notice prepared to go out to clients after the council vote. “I would ask for two months of delay.”
Councilman John McGovern asked that the $1 million balance in the LWPC fund be repaid into the village’s general fund to partially pay back the purchase price. He noted that since the village bought the facility in 2013, no repayments have been made.
Councilman Michael Napoleone agreed that there needs to be a place for small businesses to function in Wellington.
“Several of us up here, myself included, worked with the village to try to find alternative places where executive suites, which don’t exist now, could be built,” he said, naming several potential locations.
McGovern said that even if Wellington wanted to be in the executive suites business, the LWPC needs to be replaced.
“It is not to our standards,” he said, noting that the building is more than 40 years old and is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Vice Mayor Michael Drahos said that Wellington should not be in this business.
“I have been consistent over the last six years on my fundamental opposition to the government’s role in a private landlord-tenant business,” he said.
Drahos said that the decision may not be popular, but “it is the financially prudent vote to make for the Village of Wellington.”
The council unanimously agreed to proceed with the closure, but not send out the eviction letters until March 15, extending the deadline to vacate the facility until Dec. 31, 2023.
In a related matter, the council agreed to postpone issuing a call for letters of interest for the Wellington Green Park 10-acre civic site for one month to allow for more research into a possible public-private partnership to develop the site with several community amenities, including a possible state-of-the-art executive business suite project to replace the LWPC.
At the meeting, Gerwig said that she had reached out to a national group she had spoken to before the pandemic, and they expressed a continued interest. Meanwhile, a local group spoke up to say they might also be interested.
In other business:
• The council unanimously rejected a request from a property owner in the Palm Beach Little Ranches neighborhood to amend the Wellington Planned Unit Development (PUD) to add one additional residential unit to the Little Ranches East plat for a .23-acre parcel at 977 Cindy Drive. Neil Winer purchased property designated as open space/recreation in 2006 at a tax deed sale for $3,900 when the developer failed to pay the taxes on the parcel. Little Ranches is a large-lot equestrian community, and the council agreed with the staff recommendation that the parcel’s size and other factors make it inappropriate for a residential unit in Little Ranches. Wellington’s Equestrian Preserve Committee and Planning, Zoning & Adjustment Board previously rejected the request, which was also opposed by other property owners in Little Ranches.
• The council unanimously approved the voluntary annexation of Panther Run Elementary School into the village. The 20-acre school site is on the north side of Lake Worth Road just east of the village’s border. It has long been considered a Wellington school but has never been officially in the municipal boundaries. Most of the students are Wellington residents. The village worked with the School District of Palm Beach County to make the voluntary annexation possible.
• The council awarded a contract to the Ohlson Lavoie Corporation for architectural and engineering services for the construction of a new aquatics facility. The amount of $63,550 would be for design services. At a workshop meeting in December, the council short-listed three possible sites for a new aquatics facility — the current site at Wellington Town Center, a site at the back of Village Park and a site at Wellington High School. The firm will come up with designs and master plans for the various concepts for the council to then decide which would be best.