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Dunedin development chief sees long-term horizon

DUNEDIN — Bob Ironsmith has had better weeks.

The city's economic development director saw the national credit crunch hit home last week with the news that a downtown centerpiece, the $30-million Marina condo and retail project planned for 200 Main St., is foundering.

Synovus Bank is suing developers Jim Egnew, Richard Gehring and Bill Kimpton for $5.7-million in loans after they missed three months of interest payments.

But the news isn't all bad.

Ohio-based developer Pizzuti Solutions is moving ahead with the $30-million Gateway project, and plans offices, homes and stores on 4.1 acres the city owns between Skinner Boulevard and Main Street. Because of the economic slowdown, Pizzuti will buy half the land later this month, start on the first of two phases, then buy the land for the second phase in 2011.

How do you keep a town's economic engine stoked in turbulent times?

We decided to sit down with Ironsmith to see how he approaches his job and how bad a hit losing the Marina project will be. With the city since 1995, Ironsmith, 47, wears three hats: housing, economic development and downtown redevelopment.

How do you encourage economic development?

We're really trying to facilitate where opportunities present themselves. ... At the heart of it, what you really have to do is make sure you have a strong city and a strong downtown. Because if you do, people will invest.

Does that work in this economy?

It's a challenging time, but Dunedin is stable. It's a good investment.

We have a very strong downtown and a lot of strong assets citywide (beaches, a golf course, a fine arts center, a museum, the Pinellas Trail, the Toronto Blue Jays, Honeymoon Island, restaurants). You have challenging parcels, but all in all, it's a vibrant city.

How do you view this economic downturn?

I look at it as a major pause and a correction. The underlying fundamentals are still good.

Is it harder to interest developers now?

It tends to make the prospective entities more selective, that's for sure. ... The pool may be smaller, but it's concentrated with people who are more serious. It is more challenging to make things happen, but I think we still have a lot of opportunities.

How big a blow would losing the Marina project be?

That is a key piece of real estate. There are so many positives (waterfront view, on Main Street) that, in time, it will find a user. We wish them the best. We'd like to see it happen. But we know that if we have a strong downtown, opportunities will present themselves.

Do you try to help struggling developers, like the Marinas?

You don't want to counter market forces. If the condo market is quiet ... If people are not eating chocolate, then you can't force them to eat chocolate. Typically, developers do their own market research and position a project based on their market analysis. ... (When things change) developers will then move in another direction.

What are some things you do in your work day?

Talk with City Manager Rob DiSpirito, City Attorney John Hubbard, a couple of developers... Things to ensure promotion, marketing, infrastructure, a vibrant downtown. For example, we added a pedestrian crossing on Main Street crossing Broadway (to give pedestrians safer access to businesses).

You usually facilitate a use that economic forces bring to you, but you were more active with the vacant Nielsen complex?

That one, we did show. We were looking at how we could stimulate opportunity there (and Grady Pridgeon bought the four buildings). I think he (Pridgeon) is motivated and eager to redevelop the site. ... You hope that it would act as a catalyst for creation of jobs, creation of consumers to go to various shops.

Do you put pressure on Pridgeon to develop?

I don't know what pressure I could put on them, frankly. The city has longtime horizons. You really have to look at what's best for the city in years to come. You don't want to make it expedient.

Theresa Blackwell can be reached at tblackwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Dunedin development chief sees long-term horizon 10/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 10:45pm]
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