Community kitchen lease deal under investigation by commissioner




Concerned that the Key West City Commission’s recent vote granting a $1 a year lease agreement to a local non-profit organization showed favoritism towards the group, Commissioner Margaret Romero has used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to documents involved in the project.

Romero used the federal information act to access documents submitted to the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps by Star of the Sea Outreach Mission (SOS), a local community kitchen that provides fresh meals daily to hundreds of area youths and senior citizens. The AmeriCorps NCCC group had agreed to provide 10 volunteers to help SOS renovate the 3,500-square-foot abandoned locker room building behind City Hall that was turned over to the city last October by the Monroe County School Board as part of a property swap.

SOS had proposed that it lease out the locker room building for ten years at $1 a year as the new home for its community kitchen, an industrial food prep center capable of making between 500 and 1,000 meals a day that are delivered to 15 sites in the Lower Keys, including the Bayshore Manor senior citizen facility and the Key West Boys & Girls Club. In return, SOS said it would contribute $500,000 to renovate the abandoned building, demolishing walls, raising the floor and installing a commercial-grade kitchen.

City officials voted 6-1 on Feb 22 to approve the proposal. Romeo was the lone vote against the project and has continued to investigate the deal, worried that the proposal was unfairly fast-tracked by city officials and that negotiations between SOS and the city showed undue favoritism towards the non-profit. One way to investigate her concern, Romero said, is to find out when SOS received the go-ahead from AmeriCorps NCCC to use its volunteers to help with the building renovation. Unable to get that information from either SOS or AmeriCorps, Romero said, she applied to the Freedom of Information Act office for help.

“How would you get permission to use a group of [AmeriCorps] people on a project for a specific location if, in fact, there might appear to be a change in the location,” Romero said. “It raises a very interesting question. How was this fast-passed and why?”

As part of its efforts to find a new location for its kitchen – SOS had been using St. Mary’s Basilica until it was demolished for structural weaknesses – Executive Director Tom Callahan had approached AmeriCorps to tap its volunteer group for help. The original application to AmeriCorps proposed the new kitchen would be located in Rockland Key, Callahan said, but that location could not be finalized. Faced with the loss of the promised volunteers, Callahan sent out emails to several city groups in December asking for help finding a location for the kitchen. Key West officials, who had just received the locker room and adjacent gym from the school board, offered to start the process of vetting Callahan’s proposal.

As for Romero’s concern that AmeriCorps would not have agreed to donate its volunteers to a project without a firm location, Callahan said that AmeriCorps liked the idea of helping SOS meet its mission of feeding underprivileged children and senior citizens.

“They bought into the idea. They gave me latitude to find a building,” he said.

But when a building had not materialized by the end of December, AmeriCorps gave Callahan a deadline to find a location or lose the volunteers, who would provide a labor value of $200,000. That’s when he sent out his emergency email asking for help to find a building. With his window of opportunity fast closing, Callahan grabbed the city’s initial approach.

“Did I jump on that fast? Absolutely,” he said. “But there were no discussions with the city about that building until the beginning of January.”

Callahan said the first time he met with city building officials to formally discuss the idea of using the locker room was on Jan. 10. He then sent a proposal to city commissioners on Jan. 23.

“She’s crazy,” Callahan said about Romero. “She’s on a witch hunt.”

But Romero said that if AmeriCorps was led to believe in December that the project had received a definite go-ahead from city officials, one month before Callahan’s proposal was sent to commissioners, she would be “extremely uncomfortable” with that.

“I want things done properly in our city. I want people held accountable,” she said.

Romero also complained that demolition work was begun on the locker room building before a building permit was received from the city. If so, she said, that would constitute a violation of the lease agreement between SOS and the city. However, City Manager Jim Scholl said that a building permit had been granted but had not been picked up and posted on the job site as required before work began.

“They might have got a little aggressive with the demolition,” Scholl told commissioners at their March 7 meeting, where Romero brought up the discrepancy. “They’ve certainly been given direction that they have to meet all the requirements to be able to proceed with the whole project.”

SOS is currently operating out of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Key West. Callahan, who receives no salary for his full-time work as executive director, started SOS in 2015. The organization has commitments to provide 500 meals a day this summer.