Vision dashed? Bank enters contract to sell land that city wanted for park
Commissioner Marty Sullivan urged the city to make another unsolicited offer to buy the property, but hopes for a deal dimmed
Sept. 15, 2023
By Beth Kassab
After a contentious public meeting over how — or even if — the city should acquire 2 acres on Orange Avenue to expand Seven Oaks Park, Friday brought what appeared to be a final blow to any last hopes for a deal: the broker the landowner Bank OZK said the property is under contract with another buyer.
City Manager Randy Knight let Commissioners know the news Friday afternoon, just one day after the city sent another unsolicited offer to the Arkansas-based bank previously known as Bank of the Ozarks to purchase the vacant property for about $6 million.
That offer was the result of a 3-2 vote on Wednesday night to, for a third time, attempt to purchase the property after the city learned on Monday that the bank accepted an offer from an unknown buyer. Mayor Phil Anderson and Commissioner Kris Cruzada voted against the offer.
Commissioner Marty Sullivan, who tried to insert money for the purchase in next year’s city budget, but withdrew that motion for lack of enough support. Sullivan said he wanted to call the vote to demonstrate to the bank that commissioners weren’t “dragging our feet” over the acquisition. In public meetings there was a lack of unanimous support to spend contingency funds or issue bonds to finance the purchase.
Sullivan said he supported the citizens who “took the long view” of what the property could mean decades from now: a more connected series of green spaces from Mead Botanical Gardens to the Winter Park Tennis Center to Seven Oaks, which is still under construction along Orange Avue.
For some in the city, including supporters of the private Winter Park Land Trust, which offered $500,000 toward the deal, the bank’s parcel represented a vision to maintain Winter Park’s small urban village charm and would have preserved a slice of increasingly scarce undeveloped land in a busy business corridor.
“I’d like to see Orange Avenue become more like Park Avenue rather than become more like U.S. Highway 17-92,” said Brad Blum, a member of the land trust and former chief executive officer of Olive Garden and Burger King, who attended the meeting.
But the practical implications of a more than $6 million purchase during a year with a number of competing priorities for a piece of the city’s $208 million budget were too difficult to overcome for Anderson and Cruzada.
“I’m not about to put up money when we don’t even know where it’s going to come from and burden residents,” Cruzada said.
Anderson said floating $4.5 million in bonds, the difference after taking about $1 million from the city’s parks acquisition fund and $500,000 from the Land Trust, made the most sense, but he said other priorities such as new fire stations and flood control improvements are more pressing needs.
“I’m just not feeling or hearing the grassroots support demanding that this is the best use for city funds,” he said.
Vice Mayor Sheila DeCiccio said she supported the idea of buying the property to preserve as greenspace, but no longer felt the bank was dealing with the city in good faith. For that reason, she did not support Sullivan’s motion on Wednesday to add the bank property to the city budget, which left Commissioner Todd Weaver as the only likely “yes” vote in addition to Sullivan. As a result, Sullivan withdrew that motion.
“This is the third time the bank has pulled the rug out from under the city,” she said. “They have not dealt with us in good faith and have played us to get another offer.”
The bank did not respond to a call for comment.
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