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Osceola government weighs leaving downtown Kissimmee

Osceola County needs more space for court operations. One option under consideration is building a 150,000-square-foot addition to the existing courthouse in downtown Kissimmee.  Cost: $42.5 million  Annual Debt Service: $2.5 million
Osceola County needs more space for court operations. One option under consideration is building a 150,000-square-foot addition to the existing courthouse in downtown Kissimmee.  Cost: $42.5 million  Annual Debt Service: $2.5 million (Osceola County)

Osceola County Manager Don Fisher said he expects to make a recommendation in December to commissioners on whether to keep the county administration offices in downtown Kissimmee or move to the county center on East Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway.

The demands of the court system are driving the need to consider relocating. The county already has vacated its third floor to make room for more court functions, but Fisher said it's a short-term solution. In the next five years, the county will need to either build a courthouse addition or a new administrative building at another location.

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"I've got some information being pulled together with renderings and cost estimates," he told GrowthSpotter. "I also plan on meeting with city of Kissimmee to have a discussion on what we found – they have interest in the county staying downtown."

Don Fisher, Osceola County Manager
Don Fisher, Osceola County Manager (Osceola County)

Fisher said he's weighing whether county employees would rather be closer to the new SunRail station, which would be open by the time a new building is constructed. The county center location, however, is more centrally located and is closer to the areas of the county that are expecting the highest population growth.

"St. Cloud is really booming, and that's where the population growth is going," he said.

Building a new county administrative building at another downtown location is off the table. "It's not direction from county commission to look at that as an option," Fisher said.

Chief Judge Frederick Lauten said building a courthouse addition "makes perfect sense to me." But he knows the decision, ultimately, is a political one.

Commissioner Cheryl Grieb, who served two terms on the Kissimmee Commission, said the county office belongs downtown. "The city has spent millions to rejuvenate our downtown – we just opened a $30 million park on the lake," she said. "We thought we had a commitment to keep them downtown, so I was surprised when it came up at our strategic planning session."

The most expensive proposal under consideration would involve building a 6-story, 180,000-square-foot building at the county center on U.S. 192. The Property Appraiser and Supervisor of Elections would move into the new building. Estimated cost: $60.7 million Annual Debt Service: $3.57 million
The most expensive proposal under consideration would involve building a 6-story, 180,000-square-foot building at the county center on U.S. 192. The Property Appraiser and Supervisor of Elections would move into the new building. Estimated cost: $60.7 million Annual Debt Service: $3.57 million (Osceola County)

But Commissioner Fred Hawkins said the county center location on U.S. 192 makes more sense financially and geographically. "I don't think downtown will suffer because the county employees would simply be swapped out with more court system employees," he said. "Plus, if we move out to (U.S.) 192, it will spur more development along that corridor."

But Grieb said even if more restaurants open near the county center, employees would have to drive every day to eat lunch. Downtown, they have multiple restaurants within walking distance. "For me, it makes sense to have it here," she said. "From the beginning I've been a strong supporter of that. But it takes three votes, and we need to look at the dollars."

And funding will be a major factor in the decision. The cost estimate of building a 5-story county administrative building and parking garage at the county center is $54 million - compared to $41 million to build a courthouse addition downtown.

And Fisher said the county doesn't have money in its reserves for either option. There are two possible scenarios for financing the construction: either issue general obligation bonds or enter into a public-private partnership (P3) to construct the building/addition with a long-term lease.

"Leasebacks end up being more expensive in the long run," Fisher said. "It costs less to issue bonds ourselves. The problem is even if we have the bonding capacity, I don't think we have enough cash flow (to make the debt payments.)"

The county's 5-year Capital Improvement Plan calls for a $6.85 million placeholder in FY2018 to renovate the administrative building for the court system - on top of the $1 million allocated this year for the third floor renovations. But the latest estimate projects the renovation cost at $13.7 million.

"It's always been the intent that county government would move out of the administrative building we're in and let the courts take over," Assistant County Administrator Beth Knight said. "But the administrative building wasn't designed with court administration in mind. It almost seems to make more sense to build a second judiciary building at Courthouse Square, and that way they could have a facility that's designed to their needs and specifications."

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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