TAMPA — An office building at Tampa International Airport set for a controversial demolition may not be coming down after all.
It turns out Moffitt Cancer Center is interested in renting the building. According to an e-mail obtained Tuesday by the St. Petersburg Times, the center is considering paying more than $600,000 in annual rent.
While Moffitt's interest is only tentative, it contradicts a main premise by the airport's executive director, Louis Miller, that the building had little value because there were no likely tenants.
This alleged lack of interest helped convince the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board on Thursday that a pending demolition of the $4 million building was necessary, even though it had earned TIA almost $500,000 in rent a year. Board members voted 3-1 to uphold Miller's decision, which he made last year without notifying them or the public. Among those Miller did consult with, however, was board chairman Al Austin, who owns 400,000 square feet of offices nearby.
Austin said he didn't have a conflict in discussing the matter with Miller because the airport-owned building doesn't compete with his offices, which are about 20 percent empty. Both justified the demolition last week by saying there had been no interest in renting the building, so the airport didn't lose any revenue by razing it.
But Miller and Austin acknowledged Tuesday that they had been told about Moffitt's inquiries into the two-story building at 4101 Jim Walter Blvd. in October, when a broker was turned away after contacting airport officials. Asked why he didn't mention Moffitt until the e-mail detailing its interest became public Tuesday, Miller said he didn't because "it didn't come up."
Austin at first denied he had a discussion with the broker about Moffitt in October.
"That's a lie," he said. Minutes later Austin called the Times back and said he had been mistaken. He had been contacted about Moffitt's interest back then, he said, but not by the broker he was asked about. He said Miller told him he couldn't get involved because he sits on the aviation authority board and Moffitt's board, and that posed a conflict.
"I stand corrected," Austin said. "Off the top of my head, I couldn't recall it."
Miller said demolition will be halted for a week while airport staff evaluates Moffitt's interest. Its officials toured the building Tuesday and will contact airport officials later with a more specific proposal, Miller said.
Details of Moffitt emerged only after the lone dissent in the vote, attorney Steve Burton, sent an e-mail Sunday night to the authority's legal counsel, Gigi Rechel. He told her a commercial office broker had contacted him after Thursday's vote with news that he had a client willing to pay more than $600,000 a year to rent the 40,000-square-foot building for the next 10 years. The previous tenant, Continental Airlines, had paid about $464,000 a year.
When they were told about Burton's e-mail, other board members said they were disappointed that Miller hadn't told them about Moffitt.
"He told me it was impossible to rent the building because the office market has about a 20 percent vacancy rate," said Dr. Joseph Diaco, the former team physician for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who was appointed to the board in August. "I agree we need to stop the demolition with these newfound facts. I'm surprised by this revelation."
County Commissioner Ken Hagan said he needs to know more, but said Miller's decision to delay demolition was a good one.
"It would have been nice to have been made aware of all the conditions and facts about potential interest in the building," Hagan said.
Miller defends his decision to demolish the building. He said the property will be needed for a future airport expansion. He said Moffitt's interest still doesn't mean it's a concrete offer. The reason Moffitt was turned down in October was because the center wanted to rent the building for 20 years, which would have conflicted with the airport expansion.
"All they said was they wanted a long-term agreement," Miller said. "Now we hear back from them that they only want 10 years. The bottom line is now we know they are serious."
Yet the 20-year lease was never a major sticking point, Moffitt chief operating officer Jack Kolosky said.
"This is one of a number of properties that we are looking at, so we haven't narrowed it down yet," Kolosky said. "With us, it's more of a question of, 'Is it available?' If they came back to us in October with 10 years, we would have talked to them."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]