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Kearney Construction Co. files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

A longtime Tampa construction business has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, yet another casualty of the real estate industry's three-year swoon.

Kearney Construction Co. was established in 1956 by Wes Kearney, who started the family business while in his 20s.

But like many Tampa Bay companies dependent on a healthy real estate market, Kearney Construction has suffered from postponed and canceled projects. Until recently it claimed 400 employees and more than $100 million in annual revenue.

Among the big cancellations was Cypress Creek Town Center, an incomplete 1.3 million-square-foot mall in Pasco County. When the project was indefinitely postponed last year, Kearney charged the developer with failing to make good on a $1.6 million earth-moving bill.

But the biggest source of trouble has been banks' refusal to extend credit, said Don Phillips, head of Tampa's Phillips Development and Realty.

When banks such as SunTrust called in loans on Kearney, the company had little choice but to seek bankruptcy protection. The loss of credit doomed Kearney's chances to win any more state road projects, part of its lifeblood.

"You end up with a savvy experienced business owner of 50 years finally saying it's not worth it," said Phillips, who's worked with Kearney for years. "Now you're going to have 50 to 100 foreclosures of those employees who depend on companies like it."

In its bankruptcy filing Wednesday, the privately held company listed debts of more than $10 million spread among hundreds of creditors.

Company chairman Charles "Bing" Kearney, the founder's son, is a man-about-town whose business card is impressed with an image of a $100 bill. He's also one of the Tampa Bay area's premier political fundraisers.

Kearney lavished thousands of dollars on pro-development politicians, mostly Republicans such as County Commissioners Jim Norman and Mark Sharpe, but also Democrats like Kevin White.

Kearney, his companies or relatives gave more than $30,000 to County Commission candidates since 1999 and a $100,000 to state and federal candidates, according to campaign records.

As he doled out campaign cash, Kearney pulled strings. When Trey Traviesa left his state House seat last year, would-be GOP candidates sent Kearney their resumes, even though he played no official role in the party's selection committee.

Hillsborough commissioners postponed the start of a meeting in 2007 so they could attend the funeral of Wes Kearney, Bing Kearney's father. He and other Kearney executives declined to comment for the story.

Kearney Construction is best known as a site developer that clears and grooms land so it can accommodate buildings. It did site work for commercial projects like Citrus Park Mall and International Plaza. It has also done government projects like the widening of State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes between the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41.

The Kearney family owns about a dozen companies. At least three — ATV Equipment Co., Florida Equipment Co. and Florida Trucking Co. — have jointly filed bankruptcy with the larger construction firm.

Phillips said that as long as banks continue to hoard taxpayer bailout money in violation of their agreement with the government, real estate operators are going to continue to fall like dominoes in Florida.

"The small business community in our state is perishing," he said.

James Thorner may be reached at jthorner@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3313.

Kearney Construction Co. files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy 08/27/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 10:30pm]
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