The top 3 1/2 floors in Manatee County’s Old Jail building still resemble what was once a jail, but it could soon house new residents after the county received an unsolicited proposal to turn some surplus properties into workforce housing.
More than six months after receiving the proposal, which officials say is not public, Manatee County has started exploring using buildings in downtown Bradenton for workforce housing.
The county anticipates receiving at least one response to its Invitation to Negotiate for a long-term lease of the Judicial Center site, 1051 Manatee Ave. W.
Proposals are due 4 p.m. Sept. 15.
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“We are trying to be very open-minded and let the developer be creative,” said Charlie Bishop, the county’s property management director. “As a government agency, we are not allowed to go with an unsolicited proposal.”
The more than 80,000-square-foot Old Jail building, which has six separate floors and a ground-floor lobby, has been vacant for nearly 10 years. Its redevelopment would be a win for both the city and county, Bishop said.
“We are targeting early 2017 to have it finalized so the successful developer can start work,” he said.
Despite not being up to code, the county still has to maintain the facility at taxpayers’ expense. The building could also be connected to the Judicial Center’s chiller as a revenue generator, according to Bishop.
“We have an oversized chiller system and could tap into the chiller system, creating a revenue for the county ... selling chilled water,” he said. “It is going be a benefit for the county.”
With the possibility of redeveloping other underutilized county-owned buildings in downtown Bradenton, county officials are hoping the conversion of the Old Jail building into housing is a successful pilot.
“There is a need,” Bishop said.
Need for affordable housing
In the first quarter of 2016, rental vacancy rates in the southern U.S. were only 8.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Attainable housing is something that is “desperately needed in this marketplace,” said Linda Formella, president of the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee.
“If what is being proposed for the old jail could actually come to pass, it would be a wonderful thing for the community,” she said. “It would just be a huge plus for the area.”
Affordable rentals are extremely hard to find, Formella said.
“It is a challenge,” she said. “It would fill a need and breathe even more life into the downtown area. I just hope that we will see this project move forward and, as a Realtor Association, we are definitely engaged in the conversation at the city and county level and we will be a part of this.”
The specifications such as the number of units and sizes will be left up to the respondents to the county’s ITN, according to Bishop.
“The vision is to redevelop the vacant jail building space into a usable space, which may include rental apartments or condominium apartments with mixed income housing, with a suggested marketing of 25 percent or more of the units to millennial population for the upper floors, with a potential commercial storefront space on the lower floors,” the ITN states.
Whenever working with a potential business or customer, officials would always ask where they could live, said Dave Gustafson, former director of Bradenton’s Downtown Development Authority.
“It was always there was a deficit of housing in downtown,” he said, pointing to the high occupancy rates of existing downtown apartments such as RiverSong located on the Riverwalk.
The occupancy rate at RiverSong Apartments was 97.7 percent on Tuesday, according to Morgan Sharbono, assistant property manager.
“With apartment living, everybody wants everything right here,” she said.
The location in downtown Bradenton is the apartment’s biggest selling point, said Sharbono, who lives in RiverSong.
“Everything that happens in Bradenton happens in our backyard,” she said. “They want to lease here because they are in the heart of it. They are within walking distance of everything, which is kind of rare in this area.”
An increase in the affordable housing inventory in Bradenton and Manatee County would definitely be beneficial, according to Ben Bakker, a commercial real estate agent in Bradenton.
“Whether it is geared toward low-income families or homeless population or millennials, I think is almost irrelevant as long as at least one section of the population is being addressed,” he said.
But while Bakker said he doesn’t see millennials necessarily being attracted to living at the Old Jail, he thinks it will definitely serve a purpose and help.
“I think it is an intelligent move,” he said. “It is using inactive downtown property to serve a purpose. I really think it would appeal more to a paycheck-to-paycheck person.”
Draw for other development
More people need to be living in an area in order to attract more restaurants, breweries and specialty shops, according to Johnette Isham, Realize Bradenton executive director.
“This is definitely a game changer,” she said. “More buzz, more people, more money.”
A housing redevelopment project such as this could trigger other development such as restaurants and shopping, Formella said.
“The businesses will follow the population,” she said.
The redevelopment of the vacant building would be a creative use of a public space currently underutilized, according to Isham.
“It shows how the community and the county are really understanding the critical need to address housing that will attract more people to live, work and play in downtown Bradenton,” she said.
Before commercial development comes into an area, businesses want to know how many rooftops there are in a specific area, Gustafson said.
“The more people you bring to your downtown, it is a natural occurrence to want to bring more retail, more restaurants, more everything,” he said. “You are taking a building that was kind of a burden on taxpayers, and now you are turning it into a potential money generating opportunity for the county, which is just huge.”
“The sky is the limit” with this potential project, said Gustafson, who is looking at whether he can put a team together to assist with it.
“If there is an opportunity for me to assist, I’m there,” he said. “I’m not going to do it for me. I’m going to do it for the community. That is the bottom line. This definitely interests me. I’ve already sent the article to a few developers I know up north. I just want to light the fire.”