Trinity Town Center has been heralded as the soon-to-be gem of southwest Pasco, a $60-million commercial project that promises to establish an upscale "downtown" of restaurants, shops and offices in a corner of the county dominated by houses and traffic.
But behind the elegant Mediterranean-style facade, some not-so-pretty disputes have been brewing between the developers and the companies helping build the center at Little Road and Trinity Boulevard.
Subcontractors say Trinity Town Center LLP hasn't been paying them for their work.
At least 20 subcontractors and suppliers have placed a total of $3.6-million in outstanding liens against the project, county records show. One dispute over a nearly $1.3-million bill involving the project's parking garage has landed in court.
"In my years in the trade, I've never seen anything quite like it," said Chris Moody, president of Iron Age Plumbing and Piping, which has filed three liens since April totaling nearly $74,000.
"It isn't a good feeling, obviously. We've tried to work with them best we can," he said. "We were always told the funding was through a lender that was cutting their draw so, consequently, we weren't getting any money."
Developers say, however, there are a variety of reasons for the large number of liens, none of which have anything to do with their ability to finance and finish the project.
They attribute the liens to disputes over the quality of certain subcontractors' work, to one major subcontractor not paying its suppliers, and to a ripple effect of other companies getting panicky and jumping the gun before they are due the money.
"Filing a claim of lien doesn't necessarily imply somebody is due something," said William Planes, the Tarpon Springs businessman behind the project. "It means they feel they may be due something."
Trinity Center's financing includes a $47-million loan from Kennedy Funding, secured by Planes and his wife. Planes also said he invested $18-million of his own money into the project.
The Kennedy Funding loan carries a high interest rate, and the developers have been trying to refinance, no easy task during today's credit crunch.
Planes declined to say whether Kennedy was releasing funds when developers requested it, saying only that a new loan is in the works.
Still, Planes and his team say that financing isn't the issue when it comes to the claims of unpaid bills. They say, for instance, that Coreslab Structures, the company with the nearly $1.3-million lien on the project, failed to include a set of wall panels on the first floor of the garage and also incorrectly installed the columns that will hold the light poles on the top level.
In a lawsuit filed in the 6th Judicial Circuit, the developers allege that Coreslab, which filed its lien in November, missed its deadline to file the lien.
"We don't pay for work that isn't done right," said Langfred White, lawyer for general contractor South Capital Construction.
In its own court filings, Coreslab denies the allegations about its workmanship and notes that South Capital, which cuts the checks to the subcontractors, had tried to pay Coreslab $700,000 last August.
But the check bounced. South Capital wrote two more checks the following month for $640,000 that did clear, but Coreslab says it never got the other $60,000.
Michael Quinlan, vice president of Ontario-based Coreslab's Tampa office, said in an interview that the developers are stretching for a reason not to pay.
"There were no problems with our work," he said, "until we filed the lien."
Rosy Conto, president of Italian Cast Stone in Tampa, tells a similar story. Her company, which is contracted to manufacture and install the architectural stonework on the buildings, says it's owed nearly $525,000 for work it has already done.
Conto said in a recent interview that the problems started in December when a check bounced. Hers is a small business, she said, and the net effect of being out that much money has meant she had to lay off 15 people.
"We want to work, but we can't if we don't get paid," Conto said. "Why haven't we been paid? We'd like to know."
Trinity developers say Italian Cast Stone's work was below par. Planes said an independent consultant tested the stonework and found that it didn't meet certain standards, which leaves it vulnerable to water damage.
He said he's since hired another company and that it will cost him millions to redo the job.
"I guess I'm tired of people thinking I didn't pay Rosy," he said. "She sold me an inferior product."
Conto sighed when told about Planes' comments but said her lawyer had advised her to say only that the lien "speaks for itself."
Working things out
Planes and his team also say that one company, Clearwater Earth Moving, is responsible for about eight of the liens that have been filed against them. They say that company did not pay its subcontractors and suppliers, who then filed liens against the entire project.
Clearwater Earth Moving's bonding company later took care of those liens. (In coming up with the $3.6-million total, the Times did not count any liens that have been recorded as satisfied. When taking into account two additional outstanding claims that developers say were paid off by the bonding company, the figure drops to about $3.5-million.)
A representative for Clearwater Earth Moving did not return a phone message last week, but a senior project manager with the company, Justin Miller, told the Times in a recent interview that the Trinity developers had not paid the company.
The developers say they are also taking care of other large lienholders. Burkett Stucco, for instance, in May placed a lien worth nearly $584,000 on the project. Burkett Stucco officials declined to comment.
Planes said the company is actually owed less than that, but that he's working out a deal. "Don Burkett and I have worked it out," he said of the company's owner. "He's going to get paid. He got panicky and filed for a lien."
A familiar name
Trinity Town Center, which is being built in phases, has only two tenants to show so far, Old Harbor Bank and a branch office of Raymond James Financial. The developers say the second phase, which includes spaces for law offices and the much-talked-about high-end restaurants, will be completed by the end of the summer. A third phase is expected to open at the end of this year.
The project is one of the biggest that Planes and his associated companies have handled, and Planes is clearly proud of it: He has put architectural drawings and brochures in the front lobby of his Palm Harbor office.
His Quality Holdings in May took out a future advance of nearly $666,000 on an existing mortgage, Pinellas County records show, but Planes declined to say whether that money would be infused in the Trinity project or something else.
Planes is a familiar name in Tarpon Springs circles: He and his wife, Regina, founded and built St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian School, a 37,000-square-foot, private, nonprofit school on Keystone Road. Regina is school administrator.
His Quality Holdings was also the group that had proposed redeveloping the First Baptist Church property in downtown New Port Richey. The group walked away from that project last year amid a breakdown in negotiations with city officials.
Planes said he has put off a number of projects, including expansion work at his school, because he wants to make sure Trinity Town Center gets finished.
Some subcontractors say they believe that will happen, and they have faith they will be paid. Lonnie Hatcher, president of Doyle Electric Co. in Tampa, said the developer owes his company money, though he declined to say how much. He has not placed a lien on the property but said his company is large enough to have the luxury of waiting.
"We're being very patient with the owner. We think it's a great project," he said. "I think the guy, his heart is in the right spot. In today's uncertain economy, all banking has become kind of problematic. My gut feeling says the man's going to do the right thing by everybody."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.