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Deal brings St. Petersburg closer to redeveloping Dome Industrial Park

ST. PETERSBURG — The days of a half-dozen Rottweilers standing guard at the bungalow are over. Alfredo Panier, 66, has at last been persuaded to sell his house to the city.

Many of his Dome Industrial Park neighbors sold years ago. On his block at Eighth Avenue S and 23rd Street, next to the roar of Interstate 275, just three parcels remain private — on the city's to-do list.

It has been a decade since the city won federal loans and grants that formed the backbone of a $7.5 million project to attract 600 jobs to Midtown's industrial core near I-275.

At the time, officials said land would be purchased in 15 months, and the project booming with private investment within three years.

Instead, a 21-acre pilot site was sold in 2007 to the Department of Labor for a public Job Corps training center — yet to open — while a second attempt to collect land to lure private employers creaks slowly onward.

"One day you think you're done, then you start all over," said Bruce Grimes, real estate director for the city.

The purchase of Panier's house was one more complicated deal in a redevelopment process bedeviled with details.

The idea is simple. Buy up small parcels with old, sometimes dilapidated buildings and narrow brick roads. Knock down the old stuff and upgrade with wide streets and industrial-strength water, sewer and lighting. Welcome big employers with sweet deals on freshly assembled property, plus a smorgasbord of incentives, and watch jobs and the tax base grow.

In practice, the city labored to attract private investment to its 21-acre pilot site, and it grappled with people like Panier.

After the city sold the initial acres for $2.25 million to the federal government instead of a private employer, it had to start over to attract industry. It identified 39 nearby parcels that might be assembled into big enough plots.

Officials sent letters to Panier and his neighbors. Sale of their property would be voluntary — so said the rules that came with the federal money. Eminent domain, much faster, is also more costly, in court battles and in goodwill. More than 20 parcel owners sold, costing the project nearly $4 million — more than $1 million of that from the city's general fund.

Panier, however, had lived in his house four decades. He could tell you about the teachers and doctors who used to live up the way and the drug dealers who replaced them. His buildings had their own history: a bungalow out front was built in 1925, the concrete-block apartment out back in 1957. It wasn't until the early 1980s that I-275 carved through the neighborhood.

So, sure, the house shook when a heavy truck boom-boom-boomed on the highway. Sure, the buildings were a bit "raggedy" after all these years. But the value of the place put his tax bill at zero. It was cheap, and it was home.

But as time wore on, the city's offers crept up. By the time it hit $150,000, Panier had seen another home that interested him.

He signed the paperwork in front of his house in December. Parcel 29 now belongs to the city.

But more than a month later, his rusty Impala still sits outside the bungalow. A trailer, yard equipment and debris surround the concrete-block apartment out back, some that's his, some that belongs to his brother Frank.

Frank Panier, 56, was another issue altogether. His brother had signed a document saying he lived on the property alone. But as city officials tell it, a few days after the sale, Frank showed up. His driver's license and other records showed he had been living at the address. So the city will also pay more than $7,000 to get him into an apartment. He still needs to move his stuff.

Because the buildings will simply be knocked down, Grimes has offered the pair until the middle of this month to clear out.

Three of Panier's former neighbors still won't sell. Donna Morgan, 46, lives with her 71-year-old father, James Morgan, in a tidy blue bungalow. Like Panier, James Morgan has lived there for decades. Donna Morgan says she moved in about five years ago to help out after her grandfather died.

She's not sure if city officials drop by — she works 80 hours a week in two jobs, as a dry cleaner and a housekeeper. But she says her father won't move. Why uproot now, at his age?

Especially when it's hard for her to see the benefits of work by city officials.

"They'll start something, but they don't finish," she said.

The Job Corps center was to employ some of her friends, but the Department of Labor's latest estimate for its opening is June. It's supposed to have jobs for 120, not the 600 industrial positions once planned.

Off Panier's block, other Dome Industrial Park parcel owners also hold out. Grimes and his staff wonder if demolishing buildings now owned by the city will remind them that change is coming.

"Things really do happen," Grimes said. "They may not happen on somebody's time frame, but they do happen."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8859.

Deal brings St. Petersburg closer to redeveloping Dome Industrial Park 02/02/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 11:02am]
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