Question of conflict arise over demolition of Tampa airport offices building

Continental Airlines rented 4101 Jim Walter Blvd. for its reservation center until September. Now it will be torn down.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Continental Airlines rented 4101 Jim Walter Blvd. for its reservation center until September. Now it will be torn down.

TAMPA — A real estate firm concluded that an office building valued at more than $4 million and owned by Tampa International Airport was a "highly marketable asset" that could easily be rented.

The airport's staff said the two-story building was in good shape and needed little immediate maintenance work.

And a real estate broker said she had a tenant who was interested enough to request a tour of the building.

So why, then, is the 30-year-old building slated for demolition — especially when it had raked in nearly $500,000 in rent each year for the airport?

The man who made the decision is Louis Miller, the airport's executive director. He said it's the best move in a bad economy, when there are few tenants who could possibly rent it. He said the airport should move ahead with its plan to replace the building with a hangar, which is part of an overall expansion that Miller believes is necessary for growth.

Before reaching this conclusion, Miller consulted with one of his bosses, Al Austin. He's the chairman of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, which governs TIA.

Austin also owns 400,000 square feet of office space in the adjacent West Shore area, of which about 80,000 square feet is now vacant. The building that's due to meet the wrecking ball has about 45,000 square feet.

Miller said he informed Austin because he was chairman and didn't think there was a potential for a conflict.

"I was only coordinating with Al as to what I'm doing," Miller said. "He didn't participate in making that decision."

Austin said Miller "ran it by" him first, asking him his opinion.

"I said, 'I have to agree with you,' "Austin said. Consulting with Miller on this matter was appropriate, he said, because he knows the office market. In no way was he serving his own interests by helping eliminate competition for his office buildings, Austin said.

"I have nothing that would compete with that building," said Austin, one of Tampa's most prominent developers and GOP fundraisers. "If I had a conflict, I would have abstained."

Austin and Miller say the building would require costly upgrades and doesn't fit into the airport's long-term plans. But Miller acknowledged the hangar that is expected to replace the building may not be built for another 10 years.

Miller said there are just no tenants out there to rent it until then.

But Mercedes Angell, a senior director at Cushman & Wakefield, said she told the authority's director of properties and contracts, Ted Leslie, that she had a potential tenant who wanted a building tour. She said Leslie told her it was too late.

"I don't question the decision they made, it just surprised me," Angell said.

Miller said he doesn't know why Leslie turned Angell away.

"I was unaware she had a prospect," Miller said. "Why don't you talk to Ted then?"

Leslie said Angell called too late.

"We already evaluated the building and concluded that it was to be torn down," Leslie said. "It didn't seem like there was any point."

At least one of the Aviation Authority's board members, lawyer Steve Burton, said he wonders why Austin was asked about the demolition and not all five members of the board, which includes Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, County Commissioner Ken Hagan and physician Joseph Diaco. He hopes to discuss the matter at today's board meeting.

"I'm reluctant to say there's a conflict, because I don't have all the facts," Burton said. "But this should have gone to the board so this question wouldn't have been asked."

Miller said only decisions to buy and sell property are reviewed by the board. Airport policy allows him to decide how to maintain, or even destroy, airport property, he said.

The building, at 4101 Jim Walter Blvd., was initially operated by the former Eastern Airlines starting in 1980. Continental Airlines converted it into its reservations center in 1991.

It paid $464,563 a year in a lease that expired in September. In response to media inquiries, Leslie wrote a summary for board members that said Continental was told this year its rent would be adjusted. An appraisal later determined the new rent would be $669,114 — a 44 percent hike.

Continental decided before the appraisal was done not to renew the lease. The airline chose to close its reservation center because of other issues, a spokesman said.

As far as TIA was concerned, however, the building still had value. The airport's maintenance staff said in June it was very well maintained. A report by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield said the building was sought after by many tenants.

Miller said after consulting with his staff, he was told it was best to demolish it. But either the notes don't exist or weren't made available as to how the demolition decision was made.

The demolition will cost $79,000, Miller said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Question of conflict arise over demolition of Tampa airport offices building 01/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 11:11pm]

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