CLEARWATER — It's been called the state's most expensive parking lot.
Bought for $40 million in the boom times of 2004, the land at the heart of Clearwater Beach's tourist district was expected to hold a $250 million, 15-story resort. Seven years later, the site owned by Kiran Patel, one of Tampa Bay's most notable philanthropists, remains a waterfront parking lot. And time is running out for Patel to get his resort project off the ground.
Patel must begin construction by February or risk losing his development order, which would zap his share of the city's density pool, granting developers extra units for their hotel projects.
That could be a disastrous setback for Patel's plans and send the land's value, listed at a $10 million loss, falling even further.
"He has a huge financial incentive to get something going," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "The worst case scenario is pretty bad."
Patel did not return messages; he is out of the country until July 12, said Patty Tibbits, his personal assistant. She asked the Times not to contact anyone else about the project until he returned.
It's not clear what Patel plans to do. Coldwell Banker Commercial brokers offered the land for sale for $30 million last year, but city officials said it never sold. An online listing has disappeared, and messages left with Jerry Lamb, a Coldwell regional director, were not returned Tuesday.
"There are a million stories floating around," said Rod Irwin, assistant city manager for economic development.
Meanwhile, Patel has focused his wealth and attention elsewhere. In April, he sued Superior Bancorp, once Alabama's largest savings and loan institution, for coaxing him into buying $10 million in shares while withholding that the bank was failing. He asked for unspecified damages.
And in May, Patel won control of the bankrupt Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh, committing millions toward the city's largest hotel.
He told a bankruptcy judge last year he would assume the downtown hotel's $49.6 million mortgage to get back his investments. He even vowed to finish some long-stalled exterior work, stopped when the contractor walked off the job.
"Hopefully," Patel told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "the eyesore for Pittsburgh will be gone."
Patel, a cardiologist, helped found WellCare, once Florida's largest Medicaid provider. The HMO sold in 2002 for more than $200 million. He has donated millions to hospitals, universities and other charities, including the Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa and the Dr. Kiran C. Patel Center for Global Solutions, a University of South Florida research center.
But on Clearwater Beach, Patel, a novice developer, was mocked for overpaying for what was then one of the county's most expensive land buys. The 2.9 acres, just north of the new Hyatt resort, had been assembled over several years by a hotelier for about $11 million.
"All my life I have done things by gut, how I feel," Patel told the Times in 2004. "I don't know if what I'm getting into is good or bad. Time will tell."
Four old hotels on the land, including the Spyglass and a Days Inn, were demolished as Patel planned for the resort. The city vacated First Street for his use. Patel talked with Marriott International about franchising a 350-room hotel.
Plans fell apart as the market slumped. In 2008, Patel and the city struck a deal: He would pay to turn his lot into a 200-space parking lot in time for spring break, and the city would extend his deadline.
City leaders aren't optimistic about Patel's chances.
"He's not had a very good track record of keeping promises," Hibbard said. "I don't think anyone can deny he's been less than impressive. At the same time, we still want him to be victorious."
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.