When Sugar Land officials announced earlier this month there were plans afoot for the long-anticipated redevelopment of the Imperial Sugar property, details were somewhat sketchy. But after a "stakeholder" meeting, two public meetings and last week's meeting of the Sugar Land City Council, those details are beginning to emerge.

And it appears the city may be willing to pitch in to help move the project along, to the tune of $5 million.

PUMA Development, a Houston-based boutique development firm which specializes in "creating experience-driven, mixed-use communities," hopes to transform the Imperial Char House, one of Sugar Land's most historic and distinctive buildings, into a flexible co-working space as the initial phase of a project to redevelop the entire 40-acre site, which gave the city its name.

After the proposal was announced, the city held two public meetings on December 8 and 15 at the Sugar Land Heritage Museum, part of the Imperial complex. Input from those meetings informed a workshop discussion at City Hall on December 20.

Mark Toon, PUMA's CEO and self-described "serial entrepreneur", told the council that one of his companies is The Cannon, which operates eight co-working spaces across greater Houston geared toward enhancing the ability of startup companies to grow and flourish.

"We're taking a slightly different slant than a traditional development company would," Toon told the council members. "We're very excited about what we have planned for the entire project."

Toon said the project needed to start with the Char House, "the most iconic building" on the site. The idea is to adapt the 8-story building for modern purposes while maintaining its historic "feel."

The plan is to retain the property's massive circa-1992 silos, even though they are of a much later vintage than the Char House, which was built in 1926, he said.

The Char House would be redeveloped into an office building, with The Cannon as the primary tenant, Toon said. The first story and the rooftop of the building would be converted into food-and-beverage and retail spaces, he said.

Devon Rodriguez, the city's deputy director of economic development, gave an overview of the project and the proposed reimbursement agreement with PUMA, which would be done in three phases based on specified "deliverables" by the company. She noted that the project is different than past ones in that there is not yet a site plan or a development application.

"But the Imperial Sugar site and specifically the Char House is how Sugar Land got its start and got its name, and has a lot of historical value and a lot of family history value for many families here in Sugar Land. And because of that, we took a very proactive approach," she said.

Using a computer-based analysis, Rodriguez said that overall public sentiment about the project so far has been 72 percent positive, 2 percent negative, and 24 percent neutral, with most concerns related to traffic.

PUMA has made a financial support request for predevelopment and construction costs, but more due diligence work remains to be done. The agreement is split into three separate amounts, which would be paid upon PUMA completing certain deliverables, including predevelopment studies whose work product would be owned by the city, Rodriguez said.

The first would be a pre-closing cap of $1.5 million; the second would be and additional $500,000 reimbursement after PUMA closed on the property; and the third would be reimbursement of actual construction funds, with $1.5 million available for throughout construction on a reimbursement basis, and a final $1.5 million that would be withheld until PUMA obtained a certificate of occupancy.

"We're shooting for the highest and best use of this building, rather than maintenance of an existing building that doesn't have another use," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez emphasized that the proposal is still in its initial phases, and that additional financing and other requests from PUMA are expected. She pointed to the project's web site, sugarlandtx.gov/imperialhistoricdistrict, as a resource for people to follow the development and provide feedback as it goes forward.

Rodriguez said city staff would like to bring the reimbursement agreement before Council for a vote in January, with additional financial consideration requests in January and February, and entitlement approvals in March, based on PUMA's plans for moving forward on purchasing the site.

Answering a question from Council member Suzanne Whatley, Rodriguez said the proposed $5 million reimbursement agreement is targeted only for the Char House, the adjacent engineering building and a 1.5-acre site surrounding them, not the entire Imperial property.

In response to a question from Council member Jennifer Lane, Toon said a new site for The Cannon in Fort Bend County would be in keeping with the commercial real estate market's move away inner-city locales toward where people live.

"I appreciate that you share a passion for the history we have in this city," Council member William Ferguson said, noting that in one of the earlier public meetings, Toon committed to not only preserving the original "Imperial Sugar" signs on the building but replicating it and replacing them.

"Preserving architectural history is critical," Toon said.

Mayor Joe Zimmerman noted that in the public meetings, Toon said that the entire redevelopment project for the building might cost $45-50 million.

"We knew that we were going to have to put some money in the pot," Zimmerman said. "Just so the public understands, we'll mitigate that risk as best we can. We believe we've got a unique opportunity to partner with PUMA and end up with really an iconic project." The city is prepared to consider renting space in the completed building, he said.

"We look forward to what we're going to redevelop together," he said.

Council is expected to vote on the reimbursement agreement at its January 3 meeting.

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