Work is under way on the Sarasota County home for the District 12 Medical Examiner’s office, a public-private partnership approved in 2021 and expected to be ready for occupancy in about a year.
Three county commissioners, County Manager Jonathan Lewis, and Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega joined representatives from Willis Smith Construction Inc. and Hembree and Associates on Thursday for a groundbreaking ceremony at the construction site at 4480 Fruitville Road.
Vega said the project is a step forward for Sarasota.
"This is not a new medical examiner facility for the county, it’s the first time we’ve ever had a medical examiner facility for the county," Vega said. "I don’t think a lot of people fully appreciate that — that’s what the value is. So we’re doing this to provide a critical service for the residents and citizens of the county that they’ve really not had before, and that really excites me."
Although neighboring counties, such as Manatee County, have built autopsy facilities for its cases, Sarasota County has been paying Sarasota Memorial Hospital to use its facilities. Vega had asked for a Sarasota County facility to house administrative offices and equipment for autopsies for nearly three years, leading up to County Commission approval in January, 2021.
Instead of a conventional agreement to build a county-owned facility on county-owned land, commissioners voted to enter a lease with 4480 Fruitville LLC for the facility. State records show the LLC’s managing partner is Frank J. LaCivita, the executive vice president of Lakewood Ranch’s Willis Smith Construction, Inc.
The county would pay between $4.4 million and $4.9 million on the 30-year lease annually. The lease would have an annual 3% escalator or the consumer price index value, whichever is higher. The county has the option to purchase the property and the building for $19.1 million after a minimum of three years.
The building under construction will house administrative offices on the 18,000-square-foot first floor of a two-story building on the west side of the property, with about 22,000 square feet of autopsy facilities on the east, separated by a courtyard. The second floor won’t be initially occupied, but potentially leased for other uses in the future, possibly serving as a revenue source for the county.
The new facility is on 4.4 acres, just east of McIntosh Road. It had to be placed within 3 miles of Interstate 75 to allow easy access to Manatee and DeSoto counties, which Vega and his staff also serve. Built to withstand Category 4 hurricane winds, it also will be equipped with a week of emergency water supplies and backup generating capabilities to operate off the grid in the case of a disaster.
Commissioners Ron Cutsinger, Christian Ziegler and Mike Moran took part in the groundbreaking, as did Lewis and members of the partnering construction and development firms.
Members of the Medical Examiners office staff also were on hand, some of whom walked gingerly around the early stages of construction with building project supervisors, getting the lay of the land, some referring to printed floor plans and artist renderings, distributed at the event.
"We had a brainstorm session and said, ‘Hey, we can do this’ and present something to make it happen," said John LaCivita, the president of Willis Smith, of the partnership between his company and Hembree and Associates. "Luckily for us, the county commissioners had the trust in us and the belief we can actually make this happen, so they pushed forward, we pushed forward and we got it across the finish line and here we are today."
Joe Hembree of Hembree and Associates said the public-private arrangement likely cut years off the project run time, adding it was the first time the county entered into such an agreement.
Moran said the construction of the offices and autopsy facility and the mechanism that propelled the project forward was a strong example of how hard-to-launch projects can be moved forward.
"It's a symbol of how an efficient government partnering with the private sector can accomplish a project that seemed like it would never happen," he said.