Blueprint approves nearly $1.8 million funding request for SOMO Walls project

The SOMO Walls project spans an entire block of South Monroe Street from Oakland Avenue to Harrison Street
Blueprint leaders at odds over developer plan ahead of vote
Published: Sep. 21, 2023 at 11:54 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Members of Tallahassee’s Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency voted Thursday to give nearly $1.8 million to developer Bugra Demirel for a project called SOMO Walls.

Demirel is currently redeveloping an entire block of South Monroe Street from Oakland Avenue to Harrison Street. The SOMO Walls project has been years in the making. Demirel broke ground on the project in April of last year.

Since then, its estimated cost has nearly doubled, from $5.6 million to nearly $11 million. Demirel cited rising construction costs, as well as the addition of a distillery to the project, as reasons for the increase.

Demirel has requested $1 million of the $1.8 million request to be given in the form of a “recoverable grant,” which he will later repay.

Commissioner Rick Minor suggested making the entire $1.8 million a recoverable grant backed by a performance bond, so that Demirel would eventually pay back all of the money received by Blueprint.

Commissioner Brian Welch seconded the motion.

“I want this to be successful,” Welch said. “There is some level of subsidy that is appropriate for encouraging and stimulating development in under-invested areas. But for me, the hang up with this is it’s just so much. It’s an enormous amount of money, and I cannot justify it because I don’t think it’s fiscally responsible.”

Ultimately, the motion failed 9-2.

Demirel said the development will be an entertainment district, with restaurants, a coffee shop and fitness center. He told WCTV it’s a necessary addition to Tallahassee’s south side.

“We do need more entertainment options,” Demirel told WCTV Wednesday. “We do need folks to visit, and folks to have fun over the weekend. Our concept in SOMO Walls in focused on food, beverage and entertainment.”

Commissioner David O’Keefe made a motion to table the vote but it failed because no commissioner seconded the motion.

Commissioner Dianne Williams-Cox made a motion to approve the funding request. Mayor John Dailey seconded the motion, and it passed 6-5, with Commissioners Jeremy Matlow, Jack Porter, Minor, O’Keefe and Welch voting no.

“We need smart development,” Williams-Cox said. “We need good places to eat. We need good places to enjoy and have entertainment on the south side. And I think that this is an opportunity to spur that growth.”

Commissioner Curtis Richardson also expressed support for the project. He joined Thursday’s Blueprint meeting over Zoom.

“This is about investing in a part of our community that has been underserved, that has been disinvested in for years,” Richardson said. “He took a risk that nobody else was willing to take, creating jobs and economic development and creating opportunities for minority-owned businesses. He took that risk, and I think the least that we can do is support him in that.”

Matlow and O’Keefe have both publicly expressed concerns about the funding request, worrying the approval is being rushed.

In a press conference Wednesday, Matlow said he wanted to delay the vote, citing several concerns, including statements in Demirel’s OEV funding request suggesting that Demirel was denied funding for the project from banks.

“The prudent thing to do is table this discussion, come back with all the information that all commissioners need and then make a thoughtful decision,” Matlow said.

O’Keefe called the project a “bad investment,” alleging commissioners were not allowed to view financial records for SOMO Walls before voting.

WCTV reached out to Blueprint attorney Susan Dawson for clarity on that claim. In response, she wrote in an email that, to her knowledge, tax returns have not been provided to commissioners in other cases. She added that certain documents are “statutorily exempt from disclosure.”

Meanwhile, others have expressed support for the project, including Commissioner Curtis Richardson. He told WCTV in a statement Wednesday, “As a 30 year resident of the southside of Tallahassee, this is the kind of development we have waited for for years.”

You can view the full Blueprint agenda here.

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