In a meeting that wrapped up close to midnight and drew dozens of residents and small business owners to speak on several hot items, Wellington’s Village Council on Tuesday night voted to move forward with the closure of the Lake Wellington Professional Centre.
You might ask yourself why that matters. Tucked away along Lake Wellington next to the Aquatics Complex, Wellington bought the aging office space from Ken Adams, one of Wellington’s founders, in a $5 million deal in 2013. Adams donated $1 million back to the village, making the village’s net cost $4 million.
When the council at the time voted to buy the pair of office buildings, officials were clear that they wanted the land for its lakeside frontage, not physical structures.
But the professional center is unique. With a total of nearly 20,000 square feet, the two wood-frame buildings offer the only executive offices in Wellington. There are 52 physical tenants and 14 open offices, along with 63 virtual tenants, said Tanya Quickel, Deputy Village Manager.
The issue of what to do with the Lake Wellington Professional Centre was brought to the council recently in a Dec. 12 workshop where Quickel explained that long-needed repairs to the roofs could not be delayed any longer, and full roof replacement is needed. The estimated cost for that would be about $400,000, she said. The outdated phone system also needs to be replaced and that would cost another $75,000 to $100,000, Quickel said.
So the council was faced with the decision: Invest more money into buildings they don’t intend to keep in the long-term, with land-banking being the intent in buying them? Or make the call now to close the doors and move forward with whatever the next step might be for that land?
The land is planned for use as part of the larger Town Center development, which is in its second phase now with the reconfiguration of parking and green space next to the amphitheater. The first phase was the Promenade along Lake Wellington, which hosts the village’s popular Friday evening Lakeside Market.
This isn’t the first time Wellington officials and staff have discussed closing the professional center. In 2018, the issue was raised as Wellington planned workshops to hear input from residents, business owners and other stakeholders for what they would like to see at the Town Center. Since then, the combined number of virtual and physical businesses in Lake Wellington has dropped from 160 to 115.
Council members voted to move forward with closing the center, but letters to tenants — with a Dec. 31, 2023, deadline to be out of their spaces — won’t be sent until after March 15. As part of their vote, the council agreed to give Mayor Anne Gerwig 60 days to craft a potential plan to relocate the small businesses that are affected by the proposal.
The vote also moves $1 million of the $1.2 million in the Lake Wellington Professional Centre fund of Wellington’s budget into the general fund, in a proposal Councilman John McGovern said was designed to start paying back Wellington for buying the property.
Dozens of professional center tenants attended Tuesday night’s council meeting to voice their opposition to the closure.
County Commissioner Sarah Baxter, who was elected in November to replace term-limited Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, said that as a representative of the district that includes Wellington, she implored the council to make sure they find a place for businesses to go before tearing down the Lake Wellington Professional Centre.
“That’s not just a responsible decision, but it shows the residents you care about them and you care about the small businesses,” she said.
Attorney Linda Braswell said she has had an office in the professional center for 13 years, and 80 to 90% of her clients are from Wellington. Calling the building “a little gem,” she said she is concerned that if she has to move her office to another city, her clients won’t follow.
Some speakers also took issue with Councilman Michael Napoleone’s comparison of Wellington’s position as landlord to the business tenants as being akin to Section 8 housing, in a comment made during the Dec. 12 workshop.
Replying to a comment from Gerwig that the office space serves as a business incubator, Napoleone said he doesn’t see a lot of the businesses growing up and out of the professional center.
“Most of the businesses in the building are staying in the building. They’re not moving on to bigger and better space,” he said on Dec. 12. “So it’s not really an incubator. If anything, it’s like Section 8 office space because it’s government-subsidized office space, which is why the private sector can’t compete with it.”
While Napoleone was drawing the comparison based on government subsidization, some business owners interpreted the remark as being about the quality of their business. One person went so far as to send me an anonymous email to make sure I heard the comment on Dec. 12.
Speaking at Tuesday night’s council meeting, business owner Marion Frank said she was “extremely offended” by Napoleone’s choice of words.
“We think you’re making a tremendous mistake,” she said of the decision to close the office space.
Christopher Levy of Made Ya Click said his business has grown since moving to Wellington, and he recently hired two new full-time employees, while also moving into a larger space in Lake Wellington Professional Centre. He’s looked for a still-larger office space in Wellington to accommodate his growing business, but to no avail. “There’s nothing within the village as of this moment,” he said.
He asked the council to preserve the buildings to protect the community of businesses within. He also asked council members to consider the possible ripple effects of a closure on other businesses in the community.
“Lake Wellington Professional Centre is a loose thread, and it has been for a very long time,” he said. “And when you pull on this loose thread and it unravels, we don’t really know what will happen.”
Gerwig, who in the past has voted against any plans to close the Lake Wellington Professional Centre, asked for the delay of two months to send the letter notifying tenants of their leases being terminated, so she could have more time to pull together a plan that would keep the businesses in Wellington.
Gerwig said she has some interest from outside groups but she did not share any business names or companies that might be involved in a relocation plan.
Vice Mayor Michael Drahos said his primary opposition is in the government’s role of landlord to private tenants.
The quality of the building is not good enough to warrant the investment needed to replace the roof and the phone system, and make other improvements that may be necessary, including work to make the building ADA compliant, council members noted.
The council can’t keep “continually kicking the can down the road, and putting Band Aids on 40-plus-year-old buildings is not the way to do it,” Drahos said.
He previously worked with coworking company Venture X to see if there was a way to bring one of the organization’s spaces to Wellington. The task proved too daunting for the company because, Drahos said, they could not compete with the rates being offered by Lake Wellington Professional Centre.
The issue will be back before the council in March. Stay tuned for more updates.
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