Enter the village of Islamorada into the mix of potential buyers of vacant property on Upper Matecumbe Key.
Council members voted unanimously during a special meeting July 21 to place a bid of $2.5 million for the former Walgreens property at 81981 Overseas Highway. Discussion dates back to April when village council members discussed traffic problems and directed staff to examine whether the Walgreens property was for sale. The idea was that the vacant property could alleviate traffic congestion and parking in an area with businesses nearby.
Property in the heart of Islamorada came back for discussion during an earlier July meeting. Council members expressed interest in making an offer, but concerns were relayed over where the money would come from.
Village Manager Greg Oravec proceeded to contact the listing agent earlier in July to relay the village’s potential interest in the property. The village was given until midnight on July 21 to present its offer.
Zoned village center, the property is expected to garner offers from developers who could build a gas station and convenience store. Village officials have different ideas for the property, however.
Oravec said the right project could move the village’s stock up, and the wrong project could move the village’s stock down. Oravec said the village could control development of the property, if purchased, through a village project or public-private partnership. Oravec placed emphasis on the village’s ability to control property if it were the suitor.
“When you think about public purposes, obviously parking has been brought up, affordable has been brought up and the hosting of community events in a parking field,” he said. “You can use it for many purposes, even on a transitional basis like a farmer’s market and food truck invasions and all kinds of things that are important to the community.”
In the absence of owning property, Oravec told council members they would only have the ability to regulate property through zoning code. And that doesn’t give absolute control.
“There are all kinds of things that may be permitted but ideally you wouldn’t want to see,” he said. “I suspect if we would just let this go to market, this property might go under contract with major conditional type uses in the village center zoning code. That means like convenience stores with fuel stations. Is that the right use for this place?”
In the near term, Oravec said, the vacant building on the property could be demolished in order to turn the site into a parking lot of about 100 spaces. He said parking could be the short-term use of property, should the village acquire it, until a plan is set with public discussions and meetings.
Oravec said the village could take money from the unassigned fund balance in the village’s general fund, which currently sits at around $8 million. Funds could also come from discretionary sales tax.
“There’s no need to dip into reserves,” he said.
Following Oravec’s report, Councilman David Webb expressed his support to move ahead with a bid. Webb acknowledged comments submitted by the public about other competing issues that need to be addressed in the village. In his statements, he noted that the village has the fundamental resources in the community to address everything from affordable housing to greenspace and stormwater.
“I’d hate to see us say, ‘Well, we don’t want to spend money on affordable housing because we have to spend money on stormwater,’” he said. “We need to find a way to address those issues long-term and short-term.”
Councilman Henry Rosenthal said he feels comfortable that Walgreens officials are aware of the community’s character. He said he hopes Walgreens’ decision isn’t solely based on purchase price.
“I think they have the inside track as to what Islamorada should look like as a community,” he said. “I think they will take that into consideration, hopefully, more so than the purchase price. If that’s what they’re doing, they should be commended on the way they’re handling this.”
Mayor Buddy Pinder said he’s glad to see the village getting to this point. Pinder said the village could always sell property down the road.