Mike and Robin Vroegop balk at terms of proposed contract to lease building at Mill Pond
Nearly four months after Apalachicola city commissioners voted to grant them a 10-year lease on the Harbormaster House at Scipio Creek, the owners of an Apalachicola eco-tourism company have balked at the lease terms, prompting the city commission to call in a mediator to help broker the deal.
Robin Vroegop, who co-owns Florida Geotourism Associates LLC with her husband, retired Tallahassee firefighter Mike Vroegop, appeared before commissioners March 6, and indicated they planned to abandon the arrangement.
“It became evident that an adversarial relationship was being developed,” she said, in describing the back-and-forth the Vroegeops have had with City Attorney Pat Floyd since he first sent them a draft of a proposed lease on Dec. 18, 2017, four days after commissioners voted unanimously to extend the deal.
“We entered into it, we thought it was a great idea,” said Robin Vroegop. “We have no desire to go forward with this lease and an adversarial relationship.”
“We came to you all with good intentions, I don’t know why it was misinterpreted,” she said.
The Vroegops’ proposed contract calls for a $1,000 a month rent for each of the next five years, and then five one-year extensions which would allow for a 3 percent annual rent hike.
Prior to the meeting, they handed out their proposed revisions to the 18-page lease to city commissioners. In her remarks Robin Vroegop did not go into detail about her objections to the language, other than to say “We have not signed this lease for a variety of reasons (as it ) did not contain the provisions that were discussed. It also has contradictory language regarding who is responsible for maintenance, and some clauses did not seem applicable.”
She contrasted the proposed lease to a simpler three-page agreement the city struck in 2014 with the Florida Seafood Festival, to allow them to use space at Battery Park.
Floyd questioned Robin Vroegop as to why it had taken so long for them to respond to inquiries from his office, which he said were made on Jan. 26, 31, Feb, 20 and in March.
“We have received no response at all if there was any problem,” he said. “They should have come back and told me.”
Vroegop said she was in regular communication with city officials, including City Administrator Lee Mathes.
“The communication with staff was there (but ) it became adversarial,” she said. “At this point Mike and I would like to thank you very much. We will be leaving you $12,000 worth of improvements to the Harbormaster House; I can bring documentation.
“What we most do not want to do is to have contention,” Vroegop said. “It’s a lovely building. I hope somebody else will take up the cause. It’s the wrong time for us and the wrong people.”
Commissioner Anita asked “is there a solution to the issue?” and Vroegop replied that “ I think we need to put another person on point to negotiate this lease. Ten percent of the 50 paragraph lease are unnecessary.”
Mike Vroegop told commissioners that “what was agreed upon by this commission was not represented in this document.”
Floyd said he had drafted the lease “within the best of my ability. We hadn’t heard anything for the last three-plus months,” which prompted Robin Vroegop to remark that “we’ve lost three months of business we planned to be open.
“I think it’s just something the city isn’t ready for,” she said. “We’re not into being in contention about it. I can’t get past the contention involved.
“I can’t sign that lease, it’s a very adversarial lease. (It says) that at any time they can declare us in default,” Vroegop said.
Grove asked Vroegop whether “it is possible some of the interpretation (of ) an attempt to protect us legally is being taken personally?”
Mike Vroegop replied that “I suggest you read it from a potential tenant’s point of view. It’s about what was agreed upon and it’s not in that document.
“There are many clauses in there that don’t even apply to us,” said Robin Vroegop.
Apalachicola resident Creighton Brown told commissioners the work the Vroegops have so far done on the building shows their intent.
“It seems like what we need is a mediator, we have a trained mediator. I would suggest the city not walk away from this,” he said.
“It’s not the city that’s walking away from anything,” said Floyd.
Mayor Van Johnson recommended that Apalachicola resident John Alber, a retired attorney from a large international law firm, and a trained arbitrator and mediator, be brought in to the discussion. Alber signaled from the audience that he would be willing to take on the assignment, on a pro bono basis.
“I would like to salvage the last five-and-a-half months of our work and my dream,” said Robin Vroegop.
“It seems eminently solvable,” said Alber.
“We have a difference of opinions, and it’s not uncommon to bring in a mediator, to salvage these relationships, to salvage these issues, to move forward. I have all the confidence in the world,” said Johnson.
Floyd said he was amenable to bringing in a mediator.
“There’s a difference between what they want in the lease. Let’s look and see what the differences are,” he said. “With a mediator, that’s fine. It’s the first time we’ve ventured in this territory but it might be necessary.”
Grove called it “a new set of eyes (that) might bring clarity to the situation.”
Commissioner Brenda Ash urged the parties to resolve the matter quickly. “We don’t need to prolong it,” she said. “It can become frustrating as an inconvenience. Let’s get the matter resolved.”
Commissioner Jimmy Elliott, a veteran of Army service in Vietnam and two Gulf wars, drew a wartime analogy to the Vroegops’ situation.
“It seems like you’re caught in no-man’s-land between two battle lines,” he said.