CLEARWATER — A billboard on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard says "Choose your slice of European luxury." It shows a gleaming new high-rise full of upscale condominiums.
But in reality, the building on the billboard is an unfinished concrete shell that's been looming over downtown Clearwater for years. Construction workers in hard hats used to bustle around the site, but no one has worked on it since last fall.
That's about to change, say the building's owners, who have a million-dollar incentive to restart construction.
"We hope to start construction in the next 30 days. The project will go forward. We're excited about its prospects," said Janeen Pearson, sales director for the Strand at Clearwater, which is to be a 15-story condo tower at 1100 Cleveland St.
Back in 2006, the Strand was envisioned as a high-end condo development that would help reinvigorate a fading downtown.
It was going to open in 2008. Then came the real estate crash, an economic slump, and an ugly lawsuit between the project's founding partners.
Now it's 2010, and the remaining partner is picking up the pieces.
A Spanish company, Espacio USA, now controls the tower. The company's American headquarters is in Miami, but it maintains a sales center across the street from the Strand.
The company intends to finish the building by early 2012. It expects the local real estate market to rebound by then.
Some observers have wondered whether a high-end condo tower — complete with a concierge, pool and spa — is likely to be successful at this location, at Cleveland Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue at the eastern entrance to downtown.
But Espacio officials say they are confident.
"We believe it can be very successful because of the redevelopment of the downtown corridor," said Pearson, who noted that the city has plans to extend the landscaping of Cleveland Street to the Strand's location.
Prices for the 88 condos aren't set. The other two condominium high-rises in downtown Clearwater — Water's Edge and Station Square — have gone through a number of owners and recently have slashed prices in a renewed effort to sell units.
$1 million deadline
The owners of the Strand face a million-dollar deadline next month.
In 2007, Clearwater's City Council agreed to set aside about $1 million for the project. The money came from downtown property taxes generated from the city's Community Redevelopment Area.
The city typically uses this money to help get projects off the ground so Clearwater can reap the benefits. Under a deal struck between Clearwater and the Strand, the city money would help fund impact fees, relocate utilities and pay for downtown streetscaping.
But the deal is about to expire.
"They have to go back to construction by the end of September or they lose their development approval," said assistant city manager Rod Irwin. "They seem determined. They're planning to proceed, to avoid having a lapse in their development approval."
Espacio also was required to test for rust on the building's exposed steel, Irwin said.
The company has a forensic report showing the structure is in good shape, and some minor surface rust can be eliminated with wire brushes, Pearson said.
The 38-year-old structure used to be an office building, often dubbed "the 1100 Building" thanks to its address. It was mostly vacant when it was purchased in 2004 for $5.7-million.
Espacio partnered with real estate developer Guy Bonneville on the project. Workers stripped the tower down to its bones, preparing to overhaul it.
Bonneville was the managing partner and the local point man on the project for some time. But after the project stalled, Espacio sued Bonneville, accusing him of fraud.
The lawsuit is being settled, Pearson said: "There was a decision made between Guy Bonneville and Espacio that Espacio will take over the project. We're in the process of resolving that lawsuit on good terms."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.