SARASOTA COUNTY — With a set of heavy hearts — and some degree of broken trust — the Sarasota County Commission unanimously voted Tuesday to offer the city of North Port $2 million for its half of the Warm Mineral Springs Day Spa.
Commissioner Christine Robinson drafted the offer and presented it to the county board Tuesday. The proposal was in response to the North Port City Commission’s decision last month to sell the 81-acre Springs, which it jointly purchased with the county for $5.5 million in December 2010. The city’s decision to sell came after it decided not to approve an invitation to negotiate, or ITN, that would combine a request for proposals for short-term operations of the Springs with a transition to a proposed longer-term agreement and establishment for future operations. The invitation was unanimously approved by both the city and county commissions in a joint meeting last July, before two incumbent city commissioners were voted out. County commissioners were confused and frustrated by the city’s turnaround.
“I’ve spent a lot of time and thought really hard about this,” Robinson said. “Trying to come up with a solution when you have limited revenue streams is challenging, and considering the situation we find ourselves in today, I felt that this was appropriate and I put forward this effort with an extremely heavy heart.”
Under Robinson’s offer that was approved by the commission, the $2 million would be paid through 50 percent of the county’s portion of revenue generated directly from the business operations at the Springs spa until it’s paid in full.
“Basically what we’re saying is the seller is going to finance this, and that’s fair in this situation because I agree that no way we’re in position or would it be correct to ask for an entire check to buy the Springs,” Commissioner Charles Hines said.
Other conditions of the offer include:
• The county wants the City Commission to de-annex, or remove the entire 81-acre Springs property from city limits. The city would have to agree to turn over all regulatory authority of the Springs to the county until the de-annexation is complete.
• The city would provide water and sewer to the property as a condition of sale.
• North Port would immediately turn over all management control of the Springs to the county while the purchase and terms of the purchase are being completed.
Robinson cited economic turmoil — thus the need for de-annexation — and environmental instability as a reason for the $2 million offer. The city paid $2.75 million for its half of the Springs, including its 87-degree lake, in 2010.
“Some city commissioners insist that the Springs are contaminated and have pointed to the plastic at the bottom of the Springs despite the recent testing that was done that states the contrary,” Robinson said. “Furthermore, city commissioners have pointed to decreased flow, water content changes and even the decrease of the smell of sulphur as problems with the Springs. This offer contemplates that those arguments certainly lowers the market value of the Springs.”
In a letter earlier this month, the city offered the county the first chance to buy the Springs. The County Commission took less than half an hour Tuesday to decide that buying the city’s half of the Springs was the right move.
“I’m very reluctant to support this, but I feel as if a trust has kind of been broken,” said Commissioner Nora Patterson, who originally championed the joint partnership to help North Port generate more tourism dollars.
“It’s unfortunate that this has come to this,” added Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Mason.
The county will wait on a response from the city on the offer before deciding what to do next for an operating agreement. Cypress Lending, the property’s former owner, has a licensing agreement to run the Springs that expires on June 30.
“We obviously have a deadline and motivation to get this done … both sides do,” Robinson said. “I would be hopeful that for everybody involved that the City Commission will consider this quickly and will move forward on this offer and move forward so we can get this taken care of so we can take over management control of the Springs and plan for it.”