CHIPLEY Â– A $852,800 Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) grant is slated to change the scape of downtown Chipley.
The funds, awarded to the city this week through DEOÂ’s Rebuild Florida Hometown Revitalization Program, will be used to reacquire and demolish the deteriorating Mongoven Building, located at the corner of South Railroad Avenue and 5th Street. Following the demolition, the funds will also help repurpose the site with the construction of a park area.
Some Chipley residents say they take issue with the circumstances of the reacquisition, which includes a grant requirement that the city repurchase the property for fair market value, despite having auctioned the property in 2019 for $1,000 to Kristy Aycock Speights and Shevaun Strickland in hopes of seeing the 117-year-old building brought up to code. While Strickland is no longer involved in that effort, Speights says her hope of restoring the building was stymied by family medical issues.
The agreement signed between Speights and the city in July 2019 called for a demolition permit or all permits and development orders necessary to bring the building up to code be obtained within six months after the purchase date. The agreement also required all renovations or demolition projects to be completed within three years and further provided the city with an option to repurchase the property.
Speights has been unable to make progress in the time since the sale. Meanwhile, the property has remained outside the parameters of the city code ordinance as it continues to deteriorate.
Cheryl Gainer McCall told council members during the August 5 city workshop that she and other city residents donÂ’t understand why the property has not been cited for code enforcement violations Â– or how a profit can be made.
Â“Why were they not assessed fees [for code violations]?Â” asked McCall. Â“And how can they make money? I had one person tell me he wanted to buy some property from the city, hold it for three years while not being assessed code violations, and then sell it back to the city. [The talk about] that is running rampant.Â”
Â“ItÂ’s being talked about around town for sure,Â” agreed council member Kevin Russell.
City attorney Michelle Jordan said the situation is unique.
Â“In order to utilize the grant, we are required to pay fair market value for the property,Â” she explained. Â“I understand the frustration; I get it, one hundred percent. But the building has to be dealt with, and we need to do it in a way that is fiscally responsible for the city, and yes, she is going to make a profit on this deal.Â”
The City has not yet had the property appraised for fair market value; however, the siteÂ’s 2020 taxable value was assessed at $12,270 with the building itself being listed at a zero-dollar value. The last private sale of the property was for $95,000 in 2005 to Dennis and Sally Carrasquillo. The site sat mostly abandoned during that time and was ultimately condemned the next year, falling even further into disrepair and assessing code violations until the city foreclosed on the code enforcement fines and acquired the property in 2018.
Â“The Mongoven Building is special,Â” said Jordan. Â“The cost of having to deal with that building is enormous, and I know itÂ’s distasteful [to think a profit will be made], but the property owner does have some costs invested in the property with inspections and surveys and that sort of thing. This isnÂ’t just handing her lots of money.Â”
Â“I would hope she would donate the remainder [of money over her initial investment] back to the city,Â” said McCall. Â“ItÂ’s the right thing to do.Â”
Speights says doesnÂ’t have plans to donate money back to the city if there happens to be a profit Â– but she doesnÂ’t have plans to keep it for herself, either.
Speights bought the building with the intention of using it to provide space for Harbor House, a ministry that provides safety and resources to domestic violence victims and survivors. She says if anyone benefits from the sale of the building, it will be those victims and survivors.
Â“The building was bought for Harbor House,Â” said Speights told Washington County News on Thursday. Â“The avenue of how the building helps Harbor House may have changed, but the goal has not. It will still benefit Harbor House because any money profited in a buy-back by the city will go to Harbor House.Â”
Built in 1905 as the First National Bank, the historic site has housed several other offices over the years, including the district school board office. Council members have plans to salvage as much of the buildingÂ’s history as possible prior to demolition, including the iconic Â“First National BankÂ” steps and the marble found throughout the dilapidated structure.
City Administrator Dan Miner states that while the city received the award letter from the DEO this week, the official agreement Â– and disbursement of funds Â– is still likely months away.