TRINITY — Seven months ago, the vacant Trinity Town Center seemed to have regained its footing amid years of recession and the financial woes of its developer, an ex-convict named Bill Planes.
Signs announced that Harr's Surf & Turf Market was coming soon. A new president flashing a bright smile assured residents that they would have a center bustling with restaurants, shops and entertainment.
But a drive down Little Road today shows that little has changed. Though the "Now Leasing" signs remain, the Mediterranean-style buildings show no signs of life. The Surf & Turf sign is gone. The only business is Raymond James, which has operated there since the complex was built.
One thing that continues to be active is the court file. Records show that in April, Sunfield Homes of New Port Richey filed for foreclosure, saying the development had made no payments despite repeated extensions on a $7.3 million loan taken out in late 2012. According to the complaint, the loan was to have been repaid about a year later.
The lawsuit also names more than 20 contractors that worked on the town center or hold an interest in the property. A couple of contractors have filed cross-claims. Coreslab, a Tampa concrete company, says Trinity Town Center owes it $750,000. Lotspeich Contracting says it's owed $30,000.
County records also show that Trinity Town Center's 2013-14 property tax bill of $73,732 is delinquent.
Planes did not return messages left by the Tampa Bay Times. A reporter visited the office, but a secretary said he was busy. She said he was working on resolving the financial issues. She said the seafood market's sign was taken down because county officials said it violated codes and that president Chuck Puccini, whom Planes hired this year to handle leasing, had been unable to work because of health problems.
Trinity Town Center filed a motion to dismiss the foreclosure, saying Sunfield failed to include copies of the loan agreement. The case remains open.
County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said she recently talked with an executive at Sunfield about the foreclosure.
"He said they didn't want to do it, but they needed to," she said. Starkey, whose district includes the center, said she was told it would likely take up to 18 months for the lawsuit to be resolved.
"I really am sorry it's been in the position," she said. "I know the community is really anxious to see something happen there."
Tony Noto counts himself among the concerned residents.
"We're really disgusted," said Noto, who lives in a development across the street from the vacant shopping center. "Initially what they proposed there was great."
Puccini told the Times in February that he was confident the economic recovery would bring upscale restaurants, shops and small businesses like a dance or martial arts studio.
Ronald Levi was skeptical.
"It's a terrible eyesore," said Levi, president of the Trinity Oaks Homeowners Association, which includes more than 400 homes. "It just sits there and it's a terrible waste of land."
Levi, whose neighborhood has been plagued by flooding, suggested another use for the property. "We'd rather see the thing torn down and a reservoir put there for water," he said.
The saga began in 2007, when Planes, who once served three years in federal prison for embezzling $140,000 from a South Florida company, announced the retail complex amid much hype.
By November of that year, money problems began to surface. Aristeo Construction filed a lien worth $485,847. Trinity Town Center sued, but dropped it after the two sides settled.
More lawsuits followed. Planes' company, South Capital, then sued the companies doing business at Trinity Town Center. Records show that some of the cases have been resolved.
Trinity Town Center took out a fifth mortgage in July 2013 for $102,000, records show, but still owes $1.3 million in loans.
Planes had a final home foreclosure judgment for $1.3 million in 2012. His wife, Regina, also named in the Sunfield foreclosure, filed for divorce last year.
Planes' financial troubles, coupled with the recession, left the town center dormant. In 2010, county officials gave him a deadline to clean up the debris on the site. He complied.
Starkey said she hopes the retail complex can eventually become viable.
"It's a great location and a beautiful piece of land," she said.
As for Harr's Surf & Turf, the former Palm Harbor market continues to list Trinity Town Center as its new location on its website, with an opening date of mid April — four months ago. On April 6, patriarch Ervin Harr died.