At a recent meeting of the governing boards of Stuart, Martin County and the School District, the majority on each board seriously discussed the building of joint facilities on a shared office campus. There were several rationales given -- we could meet in the halls and have synergy, our current building is 50 years old and approaching the end of its life, and we could save money by combining facilities which would allow the City to free up valuable property for development. What was not expressed was a cogent reason for Stuart to move forward.
It is foolish to think that City Hall can no longer serve our needs because of its age. Could the building use updating? Sure! We need to apply the same reasoning as you would to your own home. You don’t buy a new house because the bathrooms need to be redone. Could the City more efficiently use the space contained in the annex and City Hall? Of course it could. It is manifestly cheaper to reconfigure existing space than to build new space. If you look at it rationally, there is plenty of useful life left in our present City Hall.
So if we don’t need a new building, how do we save money by building one? Where does the $3 or $4 million come from to build? If we did go ahead and commit, the money would have to be borrowed through a bond issuance or a mortgage. Which circles around to the “save money” rationale. How is it less expensive than not building anything?
As to some synergistic relationship between governments, this is wishful thinking at best. (Let’s forget the concept of “Sunshine” for a moment.) All three governments have different needs and missions that do not exactly align. As the fiscally and physically smallest of the three entities, our needs would be subservient to those of the County and School Board. Recently, the City was tasked with finding a place to hold a fire consolidation meeting. We reached out to the School Board, and they were unable to accommodate us for a variety of reasons. What happens when we are sharing a meeting chamber? Who do you think will be last in line?
A campus with the County and District will erode Stuart’s identity as an independent government. In the future, we will appear, especially to those that do not know our history, to be nothing more than a department within the County. If the County believes consolidation is a good thing, then build a campus and move the Property Appraiser and Tax Collector to a new centralized location.
Finally, we come to the last argument for moving City Hall, which is economic development of the current site. For anyone to think that some magical mystery hotel developer will appear and build a boutique luxury hotel on this current site without subsidies and tax breaks is dreaming or naïve. Even if that appearance occurs, the proposition would still need to go to referendum of our voters where it would most certainly fail. With all that said, I am not against ever moving City Hall.
Here is what I believe needs to occur for this to happen. First we need a plan. The plan needs to not only deal with City Hall but also the entire Flagler Park, historic downtown, Ocean Blvd and Colorado Avenue area. The plan will encompass opening up new or extended streets. There will be new building lots potentially along those extensions. I believe that City Hall’s current site should become part of Flagler Park. It should not be sold or leased for commercial reasons. The downtown waterfront needs to be maintained for the people.
Within the plan there has to be a source to allow the City funds to pay for a new building. This can be accomplished by the ground lease or sale of the new building lots created along with the increased property tax revenue that will be generated. Any financing and debt service needs to be paid by this new source of revenue. If we do build a new City Hall, then the location must be in a place that will spur economic development for all of Stuart.
We need to forget dreams and fantasies and concentrate on development that can actually occur. What really would be synergistic is our residents and businesses coming together to think about what we can actually achieve while maintaining the true nature and character of Stuart.