ST. PETE BEACH — Since St. Pete Beach shut down its police department in January, the former headquarters has sat vacant without any plan for use. But a proposal to turn it into a charter school has prompted city officials to start thinking about options.
A group of educators asked the City Commission on Tuesday to consider leasing the building at 200 76th Ave. for use as a Montessori-style charter school named Academy by the Sea. They hope to open in fall 2014 with grades four through eight. Commissioners responded, saying they would like to fill the educational void left in 2009, when the Pinellas school district closed Gulf Beaches Elementary. But they added that they need to explore all other options for the building first.
"The city, to this very moment, has not had a concerted discussion on what to do with the property," said Mayor Steve McFarlin. "I don't want (the school) going forward in anticipation of that property being available, and we haven't even decided what we're going to do with it yet."
The city closed the headquarters after contracting with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services and disbanding its police department. City Manager Mike Bonfield said the city has been too busy with the transition to make any headway on plans for other uses.
Academy by the Sea will submit a charter application to the Pinellas County School Board in August, and organizers expect a response in October. Although it is not required for the school to secure a location before submitting the application, Luann Schecht, a member of the Academy by the Sea board, said a building could be a plus.
The former police headquarters has many appealing aspects, such as its location, security, proximity to the city recreation center, and rooms that already are divided, Schecht said. The school's board also has looked into leasing space from churches, commercial buildings and a former public school building, to no avail.
"The police station is ideal," said Schecht, a Tierra Verde resident.
She added that the academy's proposed lease agreement is beneficial to the city. St. Pete Beach would get a new public school, the city would receive rent, and students could use the recreation center for physical education and after-school activities.
There is no definitive timetable as to when the city will make a decision, but the school's proposal has sped the process, Bonfield said. The City Commission plans to discuss possibilities at its next meeting.
If the city does decide to lease the building, Academy by the Sea won't automatically get the bid. The time it would take to open the process to potential tenants and select one might be too long to meet the school's proposed timeline, McFarlin said.
"Once we get the word out, we might have 10 people apply for that property," he added.
The mayor and commissioners also discussed concerns that could arise if Academy by the Sea were to use the headquarters. Among them: student safety at a building so close to a major road and open water, meeting Pinellas Schools' facility requirements, congested traffic and potential costs to the city.
The city could also find a different use for the building, possibly even as a new city hall. Bonfield noted that the city's staff has shrunk significantly in recent years, and the police facility — smaller than the current city hall on Corey Avenue — might be more suitable. The city then could lease or sell the Corey Avenue building.
Members of the Academy by the Sea board also considered leasing the vacant Gulf Beaches Elementary School.
But board members and Bonfield say school district representatives have told them they have no intention of leasing the building.
"Their basic response was they don't have a plan and they don't have a plan to make a plan," Bonfield said.
McFarlin said he hopes the city can talk with district officials and urge them to lease the building to the academy.
District spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said that, to her knowledge, there has been no definitive discussion about the future of the Gulf Beaches building. She added that once a charter school gets approval from the School Board, they can apply to lease a vacant facility.
"Eventually, we'd like to have K-12, and what a building that would be," academy board member Wendy Holmes Boring said, referring to the Gulf Beaches property.
"It's in great shape. It would be perfect for us."
Lauren Carroll can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8913.