Talks have bogged down between Polk County and Bartow regarding the aging Cigar Factory, but the city wants to give it one more shot before giving up on saving the 84-year-old building.
City officials want to see if the county will sell the Cigar Factory to the city without the trappings of a land swap.
The county owns the vacant building, which opened as a cigar factory in 1925, and the city wants to rescue it from the wrecking ball.
Initially, administrators talked about swapping the Cigar Factory for land Bartow owns near the county's Administration Building downtown.
At Tuesday night's City Commission work session, City Attorney Sean Parker said the swap appears to have segued from a proposal to a deal-breaker for the county.
"The county wants some certainty that they will end up with the Mill Avenue property," he said. "Without that, the current discussion about the Cigar Factory is over."
County attorney Michael Craig said the county is still interested in the land swap.
"It was clear from discussions last fall with our commissioners that they want this to be a land swap," he said. "If the city wants to have further talks that's their prerogative, and we will listen to what they have to say."
County administrators have said they want the Mill Avenue site, covering a city block, to extend their parking. But city officials say the city's land is worth more than the cigar factory location, at 235 N. Third Ave., and that's only the first of many problems that must be addressed.
Specifically, the city's public works and motor pool operations are housed at Mill Avenue, and there's little chance that the city will have the money to move those operations any time soon.
The initial proposal for the swap called for the city to take control of the Cigar Factory now, and turn the Mill Avenue land over to the county within the next five years. That would give the city time to relocate those operations.
If that couldn't be done, then the city would pay the county $250,000 for the Cigar Factory, representing the current appraised value of the building.
On Tuesday, Parker said the county has become more insistent about the property exchange, but city commissioners said they're not about to be boxed in.
"I feel like the county is trying to extort the Mill Avenue property from us," said Mayor James Clements. "It sounds like the county is holding us hostage."
City Manager George Long said the city isn't in a position to enter into the agreement the county wants. He also said the city has to set its financial priorities, and it will cost money to move those operations from Mill Avenue.
"Is that at the top of the priority list beyond all else?" he asked commissioners.
In the end, they agreed to see if the county will sell the factory outright.
Bartow's Community Redevelopment Agency has set aside $250,000 to buy the building and surrounding land, so the deal could be wrapped up quickly.
And time, commissioners said Tuesday, is a factor. A year ago, when the city began talking about preserving the building, the wood-frame already was riddled with termites and laden in pigeon droppings.
Terry Hunter, a Bartow architect and member of the CRA board, said he's toured the building and is concerned about its deteriorating condition.
Commissioner Adrian Jackson said something needs to be done now to prevent further decay.
"Nothing has been done to save it," he said. "We may come up with the best plan in the world, and open the doors and find out we have waited too long."
The building, with a main floor and mezzanine, operated as a cigar factory until the early 1960s. After that, it housed the American Legion before the county purchased it as a storage and distribution center for surplus food in the 1980s.
It began falling into disrepair in the 1990s when the county used it for storage, and the hurricanes of 2004 only made the damage worse.
Last year, two Winter Haven cousins mounted a preservation effort after learning that their ancestor had managed the cigar factory in the 1920s and that the county planned to demolish the building.
Bill Melvin, with his cousin Ken Atkins, has been working with government agencies and private investors to fund the restoration of the building.
"As far as I know, all of our private sources are still on board," he said, "but this has dragged on for so long, it's taking its toll.
"We are still at the starting line waiting for the gun to go off," he said. "We've had a financial plan ready to go since last March."
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Source: The Ledger