It looks like the Philaco Woman’s Club will be moving into the former Apalachicola Municipal Library sometime soon.
But what the terms of that occupancy will be remains up in the air.
At Tuesday evening’s city commission meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to back a five-year deal with the non-profit woman’s group whose ties to Apalachicola date back to 1896.
Three after its founding, Philaco was instrumental in starting the original library, and later in creating the Gorrie Square building in 1963.
Dating back to late 2017, when that site was closed and the new Apalachicola Margaret Key Library opened at 12th Street and Avenue E, Philaco has sought to transform the vacant Gorrie Square site into its “clubhouse.”
Commissioner Despina George, who serves as the commission’s liaison to the group, opened the discussion by providing an overview of the history of the discussion that began with the closure of the former library.
She said Philaco resumed its work in securing the site at the Feb. 2020 meeting, when Club President Ginny Griner told the new commission of the club’s desire to lease the building.
“It was a not a new request,” said George. “Before the new library was completed, they had approached the city."
She recounted how the city had at first looked favorably on a five-year lease, but then “something happened behind the scenes and it didn’t go through.”
That something that happened was that City Attorney Pat Floyd determined that because of a prior resolution not to make changes to the city’s historic squares, he would propose a “licensing agreement” under which Philaco could operate.
By last year, there was no further developments, and after Philaco signaled that it wanted to resume talks, George was assigned as liaison. She met with the group and reported back in March that the women were interested in negotiating a five-year lease, but that due to the condition of the building, they would be willing to fund a roughly $1,000 building inspection, provided they were given the go-ahead.
“They didn’t want to move forward unless the city agreed with the five-year term,” George said. “The reason five years is important is the club wants to invest a substantial amount of money for repairs and improvements.”
City Attorney Kristy Branch was assigned to research possible lease conditions.
“Finally, last month (Branch) reported that she didn’t believe the prior (squares) resolution was an impediment, as long as we had a cancellation provision,” George said. “This is a continuation of that process of possibly negotiating a lease.”
On Friday, Branch issued a legal opinion that recommended entering into an agreement with Philaco “whereby the city agrees to reserve and make the Margaret Key Library available to the club for its regular and/or special meetings; however, it is recommended that the city retain complete control over the property and likewise make it available for advance reservation and use by the general public, with or without charge, for such social activities and other meetings and events as deemed appropriate by the city.”
George urged her colleagues to act. “I’d like for us to resolve these questions as to whether or not it’s legal,” she said. “I don’t agree with many of the city attorney’s assumptions and her interpretation of what’s allowed. She cited several attorney general opinions which in my mind clear the way for the lease.”
Mayor Kevin Begos stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a primary factor in the 2020 delays. He also said that while he supported Philaco in its desire to obtain operation of the building, he was cautious about setting precedents regarding specific terms.
“In the last few months there have been a number of requests from outside groups for either new leases or renewing leases,” he said, noting that the Head Start group wants to obtain an entire wing of the city municipal building, and that the Matchbox, now operated by Helen Escobar, has a lease that is also up for renewal.
“We’re trying to tighten up things. The big question is what kind of precedent we’re setting," Begos said. “Philaco is a much-loved organization with a clear tie to this library building, I salute (Kristy Branch) for putting all these options out there.”
Branch outlined her position, stressing that all would be lawful provided the commission explicitly stated that “the primary objective is the furtherance of a public purpose.”
George stressed that Philaco would be willing, in its talks with City Manager Travis Wade, to work out an appropriate lease payment. “They’re not asking for the city to give it to them for free,” she said. “It’s time we give them a yes or no.”
By unanimous consent the commissioners gave them a yes, with Wade is expected to return with a proposed lease for the commissioners to consider.
“It doesn’t benefit the city for that building to sit there empty,” said Commissioner Anita Grove. “We’ll have somebody actually taking care of a building that’s empty right now.”
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Philaco to lease Apalachicola library