Saturday, January 20, 2018
Business

Lowe's backs out of plan to build in Tarpon Springs

TARPON SPRINGS — Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse has decided not to build a long-planned store at U.S. 19 and Spruce Street, despite investing years of effort and millions of dollars in preparations to build the project.

Tarpon Springs officials, who worked hard to lure the store, expressed disappointment but said they still feel optimistic about the city's improving economic climate.

Lowe's spent nearly four years getting city and county approvals to build the store on about 19 acres purchased from Acme Sponge and Chamois Company. In 2008, Lowe's won approval from the Pinellas County Commission to change the land use designation on the property from industrial to commercial.

Lowe's also completed road improvements and other infrastructure work in the area. Spruce Street was extended to create a straight shot to U.S. 19, and a traffic light was put up there in anticipation of the store's construction.

"A number of factors required us to re-evaluate our plans, and Lowe's has decided not to move forward with store development," said Stacey C. Lentz, Lowe's public relations manager. "The real estate process can be long and complex, and our goal is always to build the best store on the best site for our customers while also considering our shareholders."

Lentz said "this was the right business decision for Lowe's" and that the site is now for sale.

City Manager Mark LeCouris said the city has yet to receive a reason from Lowe's why it decided to abandon the project, but he said the North Carolina-based chain did not leave the city in a bad position.

"It's hard for me to be too mad when we got what we got," LeCouris said. "It's not like they walked away from an empty piece of land with no infrastructure. It's ready for somebody to build on."

LeCouris said the city still got a "windfall," because "Lowe's did about $3 million in infrastructure work and that's nothing to sneeze at. It's a ready pad and the permitting, clearing, roads, drainage — all the hard work has been done."

Mayor David Archie said he is hopeful that Lowe's will still someday build on the property.

"Lowe's has millions of dollars invested in this project and I don't believe that they are going to just walk away from it, "Archie said.

He noted that the work Lowe's did to connect Spruce Street to Live Oak Street now moves traffic from U.S. 19 directly to the Sponge Docks, the city's main tourist area. That improved access also may make it easier to develop industrial parcels in the area, he said.

Lowe's decision to pull out isn't an indicator of a bad economic climate in the city, Tarpon officials said.

"A lot of things are happening and things are definitely moving in the right direction," Archie said. "This is a minor setback."

Karen Lemmons, Tarpon's economic development manager, agreed.

"The economy appears to be turning around a little bit and we are getting inquires about several sites throughout the city, so I don't know if Lowe's decision is indicative of the strength of the local economy," Lemmons said.

"I don't want to get anyone's hopes up for things, but we are getting enough calls and inquiries and potential projects. I see that there is activity going on."

Recently, a Family Dollar Store and a Chase Bank opened in the town. At its meeting Tuesday, the City Commission approved a small beer distributor for Lemon Street.

In addition, the Walmart that is moving into the site previously occupied by Kmart has moved up its grand opening from 2013 to this August, a Walmart spokesperson confirmed this week.

The new store, at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Tarpon Avenue, will hire nearly 200 full-time and part-time employees. A hiring center will open soon on the St. Petersburg College campus on Klosterman Road.

"It shows that our retail economy here is strong," said Lemmons, adding that the Walmart store "is going to do a lot for that immediate area.

"With Walmart, you typically see other businesses who like to be associated, and we think we are going to have some retail and restaurant opportunities."

Commissioner Townsend Tarapani said he's definitely seen an uptick in economic activity in the city.

"The job market, housing market and all those indicators are up, and to me, the economy is rebounding," said Tarapani, a city business owner who also sells real estate. "The real estate market in the town now is booming.

"I know we bent over backwards for Lowe's, but I definitely think the town is thriving. I haven't heard one person in the retail business who said the season wasn't good for them."

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