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Columbia County Observer

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Lake City

Blanche: One by One They Came to the Mic, But the Deal to "Walk it Back" Was Cut Before the Meeting


A woman holds up a sign which reads, "Vote No on Blanche, Fire Wendell Johnson"

Links to Blanche stories are here.

LAKE CITY, FL – Last night in City Hall, the Blanche Project, a deal, which moments after it was hatched over two years ago was made confidential by the developer, Integrity Development Partners (IDP), and was kept confidential by City Manager Johnson for over a year after the confidentiality had apparently lapsed, went back to the drawing board for modifications. Mayor Witt gave the packed house of residents and business people their turn at the microphone to state their case for or against the project, before the deal was tabled in a deal that was cut before the meeting.

The Workshop

Yesterday's Blanche workshop was gaveled to order nineteen minutes late, as the Council waited for Mayor Witt to arrive in the Council Chambers.

The Council Chambers were packed to overflowing and standing room only, and the crowd overflowed into the lobby.

Mayor Witt announced there were quite a few speakers and asked that the attendees treat the speakers with respect.

The first speaker, Jerry Leskowitz, said he was a 12 year resident of Lake City and was a consulting engineer. He said, "I'm here to support the City in its endeavors to move forward to preserve the Blanche, to save our downtown and get it revitalized."

Mr. Leskowitz was the only person to come forward in support of the City.

The next speaker, Janet Creel, introduced herself and told the Council, "I've owned and operated Homemark Real Estate for over 30 years within in the City and paid taxes. In every situation there is a winner and there is a loser. I want someone to identify who would be the winner in this situation."

Ms. Creel continued:

"I, like everyone, would love to see a beautiful downtown Lake City. I've been here all these years and seen almost nothing done.

Then, all of the sudden, you tell the taxpayers to jump in for millions and millions of dollars. Why? Why isn't this developer on his own? Why would we move from this building (City Hall)? I think this building is fine. What's wrong with this building? Why would you abandon this building and go across the street to a piece of property that everyone has allowed to fall down?

Everyone's known it was in trouble and the conditions horrible. Why would you give me, as a taxpayer, the burden to pay for something for someone else, and the people in the County may not be paying attention, but believe me, if you own a business or a service in this town, you will raise your rates to pay for this folly.

I just ask you, would you please consider everyone in our area, especially those of us who have paid many many years -- why would you tax us now? For whose benefit? Who's the winner?"

Ms. Creel was followed by speaker after speaker who shared her sentiments and were unsupportive of the City's building a new City Hall that would cost millions.

Sylvester Warren 3d told the Council he put in a public records request to discover the yearly cost to run City Hall and discovered that it cost the City $10,000 a year. He questioned the logic of paying a developer "almost $40,000 a month in rent."

The workshop ended after a few more speakers spoke out against the project.

After a short recess, the regularly scheduled Council meeting was gaveled to order.

In Between Meetings


IDP'S Rhett Holmes spent an intense time texting.

Your reporter asked IDP's President, Rhett Holmes if the New Market Tax Credits would be affected if the City did not occupy the Blanche. He said, "Yeah, but I'm not discussing it."

Your reporter followed up and asked if the City was pulling out of occupying the Blanche.

Mr. Holmes said he had no comment.

Your reporter asked if all the texting he was doing during the workshop was to City Manager Johnson, who also could be seen looking at him and texting like mad.

Mr. Holmes smiled.

52 Minutes Later: The Blanche, "Walking it Back"

Mayor Witt announced, "Under new business we have City Council Resolution number 2017-080.

The Mayor did not ask Mr. Koberlein to read City Resolution 2017-080:

City Council Resolution No. 2017-080, if adopted, will authorize the City to enter into a Development Agreement between the City of Lake City, Florida and Blanche Hotel Redevelopment, LLC, and Blanche Master Tenant, LLC, and Blanche Financial Corporation, Inc., and Integrity Development Partners, LLC, relating to the redevelopment of the property located in Block 14 of the Central Division of the City (The “Blanche Property"), and authorizes the City to enter into a Commercial Lease Agreement with Blanche Hotel Redevelopment LLC, and Blanche Master Tenant, LLC for a portion of the Blanche property.

The Mayor paused, and then continued, "I understand there have been some recent discussions with the Developer (IDP) about doing some different options other than what we presently had on the table. I spoke with an individual for a minute and they discussed it with other people, I don't know who, but -- is there any reason to go forward with it tonight or would Council like to have a workshop?"


City Clerk Audrey Sikes, Mayor Witt, Councilmen Hill and Ward listen to the  speakers.

Councilman Hill opposed procrastinating on the Blanche, "I think we're here tonight to put this to rest. Me personally, I would like to put it to rest." (applause)

Councilman Jefferson spoke up: "I heard it mentioned that there were some other options on the table that had been talked about, as it relates to the project. If that's the case, I really don't feel comfortable with it at this juncture (unintelligible) the City's going to have to live with. It may affect my vote..."

Councilman Ward immediately followed up: "In that case, I would agree to table resolution 2017-080 until we do have details."

Councilman Hill added, "One of those options was that I was told that they want to do away with recreation. I am against doing away with recreation... I think we need to settle this tonight." (more applause)

Everyone began talking over each other, including the audience.

Councilman Ward could be heard to say, "Until we have something to discuss."

Mayor Witt asked for a position statement from City Attorney Koberlein, "May we have a position of counsel (City Attorney Fred Koberlein)?"

Councilman Hill asked, "What is there to discuss? It's the taxpayer's money. Put it in the building that we have, instead of building a City Hall, or take some of that (unintelligible) money and put it towards the fire department."

Councilman Jefferson reiterated that he didn't have the final product.

There was relative pandemonium when the City Clerk's voice could be heard calling a motion to table the Blanche Resolution. It was unknown who made or seconded the motion.

The Blanche Agreements were tabled 4-1, with Councilman Hill voting against.

No date was set for the next Blanche workshop.

Epilogue


Councilman Jefferson, for years hearing him has been problematic.

After the meeting, your reporter spoke with Councilman Jefferson and Councilman Hill.

Your reporter asked Mr. Jefferson about the explanation of his vote to table the Blanche agreements. "You said you didn't have the information on which to make a decision."

Mr. Jefferson said, "I also said there has been some further discussion with someone, we didn't know who. Somebody met with IDP in reference to some other options with the Blanche. I don't have that information. I don't know what those options are."

Your reporter asked, "You could have asked them what those options were?"

Mr. Jefferson replied, "I don't want nobody to tell me. I want you to give it to me, so I can read it."

Your reporter asked Councilman Hill if he had any idea that the City's moving into the Blanche was off the table.

Mr. Hill answered, "Mr. Johnson hasn't spoken to me in the past two weeks."

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