chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
Vol. 35, No. 4

We built it. Would we do it again?

by Connie R. Pruitt

Connie R. Pruitt retired July 1 after 18 years as executive director of the Hillsborough County Bar Association in Tampa, Fla. Her previous roles in a bar association career that spanned 33 years were lawyer referral director at the Cincinnati Bar Association and executive director of the Northern Kentucky Bar Association.

Your association is running out of space, and your lease is expiring next year. You need additional staff members, but you have no place to put them. Sound familiar? If the answer is yes, your association may be in need of a new facility.

A new facility! It sounds like a great idea, and maybe it is, but you will have a lot of tough questions to answer first before you know for sure. For the Hillsborough County Bar Association in Tampa, Fla., it took a blue ribbon committee, a building committee, and a lot of time, energy, and money for us get the right answers … we hope.

The idea for obtaining new space for the HCBA was the brainchild of a blue ribbon committee that consisted of leaders in the association, including the chief judge. The committee came to this determination after many months of meetings between the committee and focus groups in the association. The blue ribbon committee report was presented to the HCBA board and approved. Thus, the Building Committee was formed.

Two members of the blue ribbon committee co-chaired the Building Committee. Seven past, present, and future leaders of the association, a bank officer, an architect, and a commercial real estate leasing agent rounded out the committee. The goal for the committee was to make recommendations about the type of space the HCBA needed in order to carry out the mission of the association and meet the desires of the membership, while providing a building that would be cost-effective in the future.

The wish list

The committee obtained input from diverse focus groups that included active and nonactive members, court personnel, judges, government attorneys, and various groups from all areas of the county. Their input was collected and analyzed.

Based on this input, the Building Committee determined association members wanted a facility that would be known in the legal community as the place to gather, with plenty of parking. They also wanted a place where they could meet socially and professionally—a point made by every focus group. Not surprisingly, the wish list for the building was extensive. The list included the following:

  • Drive-through dry cleaners
  • Large meeting room that would hold at least 150 people for lunch and section meetings
  • Meeting room that would become the CLE conference center
  • Pub
  • Day care center
  • Mediation rooms, including breakout rooms
  • Exercise facility
  • Large boardroom
  • Office space for staff
  • Space to lease
  • Full catering kitchen
  • Great area for receptions
  • A building that had a lot of “wow” space
  • Sitting rooms where members could meet privately, have coffee, and discuss cases or socialize

It was also no surprise that the committee determined many of the above requests were not economically feasible.

In addition to input from the focus groups, the Building Committee established growth projections, charted the geographic location of members in the county, and identified a trend of lawyers moving out of the immediate downtown area. It also determined that the bar association membership, like the Tampa community in general, was growing rapidly.

Buy or lease? Build or renovate?

One of the biggest questions the committee faced was whether it was more advisable to lease or purchase. To answer this question, the committee analyzed property and building availability, including the associated costs of each potential site. The committee’s final recommendation to the board was not to lease, but to own a facility.

This recommendation was based on several factors. First, our association was growing rapidly. Second, a purchase would be a better long-term investment than pouring money into a lease (and into someone else’s pocket). Third, it seemed likely that we would end up with a building that cost less per square foot. Fourth, we would theoretically be better able to control our costs in the future. Fifth, owning would enable us to fulfill our association’s mission while also providing the association with a permanent home.

The next question the committee had to answer was whether to buy an existing building or build our own facility. After looking at available buildings within the selected geographic area, the committee decided to build. The committee did not want the association to have to adjust its needs to fit an existing building’s capabilities. While we could have been happy with a building we renovated, the right building was not available.

Paying for it: A work in progress

After presenting the recommendation to the board and getting the required approval of the membership, we were set. All we needed to do after that was pay for it! We decided to do a building campaign through the Hillsborough County Bar Foundation and for the foundation to become owner of the facility.

Paying for the building started out on the wrong foot. The original building committee decided a good way to pay for the building would be to follow the program the state bar adopted. Pursuant to that plan, each association member would pay $1,000 toward the building. When we conducted the focus groups, everyone was on board with that plan. We set a dollar amount for sponsoring each room, based on 60 percent of the members paying $1,000 over a three-year period. We then determined the cost of a completely finished and furnished building, with input from an architect, a real estate professional, and the committee.

However, when we set out to raise the funds, we quickly realized we had miscalculated.  We had $1,000 commitments from only 166 attorneys and had sponsors for two of the main rooms in the building. We had a very long way to go to pay the estimated $4.75 million completion cost. We had to rethink our fundraising plan.

At this point, the actual fundraising became a project of a fundraising committee. This committee consisted of members of the foundation board who had actual fundraising experience. A much higher sponsorship amount was established for the rooms, building, and plaques.  Naming for the building was immediately accomplished. Many of the rooms and the foyer were sponsored. 

During the building process, however, Florida was hit with several hurricanes, escalating the cost of practically everything that went into the building. The $4.75 million building became a $6 million building.

After a four-year silent capital campaign for the building, only two-thirds of the funds needed were raised. Even though we had not raised all of the necessary funds, we started building and the capital campaign continued. We hoped that when members saw bricks and mortar, they would come forward as contributors. That did not happen. Although the building is completed, and we have been in the building over two years, we have only paid for three-quarters of the building. 

Learn from our experience

The biggest problem with our fundraising effort was that we did everything backwards. We started with the lower-dollar-amount contributions and worked our way up to the higher. It was only after we hit a standstill on fundraising that we hired a professional. Also, it is very important to raise all of your funds before you begin building. It is very difficult to raise funds after the building is completed. Everyone seems to think that because the building is finished, it must be paid for already!

We are very proud of The Chester H. Ferguson Law Center (The Chet). Was it worth it? You bet! If your association decides it, too, wants to build, we hope you can learn from our mistakes in making your building a reality.