LEE COUNTY — Lee County commissioners have agreed not to find VR Labs in default of an agreement that gave the company a $5 million county grant to build out its bottling plant and create hundreds of jobs.
Commissioners will take the advice of the county attorney, Michael Hunt, who recommended the county choose a liaison to arrange a meeting with the attorneys for VR Labs and its general contractor, GCM Contracting Solutions. The two companies are in a legal squabble, which VR Labs blames for delays in opening its new plant off Alico Road, in south Lee County.
Hunt said the meeting would be a "fact-finding mission," and that it could help protect the county's legal interests.
On Tuesday, Hunt presented six options to deal with VR Labs, a startup that's making all-natural V!ah beverages that promise to make those who drink them feel better. To date, the company has developed more than two dozen new products, which are now bottled and packaged by an outside company. Its own plant sits dark and mostly empty, with only part of the equipment installed.
Hunt, who launched an investigation into VR Labs a few months ago, suggested a proactive but cooperative approach was needed to protect the county's interests. He told commissioners a "hands-on" meeting would be more beneficial in trying to get some resolution on the county's outstanding concerns over VR Labs. Though the company's plant has yet to open, most of the county's grant money has already been spent.
Commissioner John Manning made the motion to direct the county's attorneys to meet with the two attorneys for the dueling companies and to gather more detailed information on VR Labs' employees and their wages, and how the company is investing its own money in the plant.
Commissioner Larry Kiker asked if the county could stop VR Labs from drawing down any more money from the grant. He said about $300,000 of it has yet to be spent and he questioned whether that money was safe. Hunt said that would be addressed in future talks with VR Labs and its attorney.
Kiker asked whether it would make sense for the county to send someone out to verify that the bottling equipment that has yet to be delivered and installed really exists.
"In my book, we kind of paid for that," the commissioner said.
Other commissioners didn't support the idea of hunting down the equipment, including Frank Mann, who said he didn't see a need for it.
Mann said he hoped the meeting suggested by Hunt would be successful. The commissioner has met with executives for VR Labs and GCM himself, but he said their stories are "180 degrees apart."
"So what we have here is a failure to communicate," he said.
GCM has filed a construction lien on the property and a lawsuit against Kay Gow, the chief administrative officer for VR Labs, and the bottling equipment contractor in Lee Circuit Court, accusing them of deceptive and unfair trade practices and civil conspiracy. VR Labs lodged its own suit against GCM, alleging it put a fraudulent lien on the property.
Hunt said he had received a request from VR Labs to extend the county's job creation requirements by a year and that an amendment to the county's agreement with the company would be brought back for approval at a future meeting.