Saturday, December 16, 2017
Business

Troubled Trinity Town Center hires new president and gets back in hunt for tenants

TRINITY — For about seven years it has sat mostly empty, with some of its cream-colored buildings only partly finished. The upscale boutiques and restaurants promised in news releases never happened. It was supposed to have the county's first parking garage, but the Shops at Wiregrass snagged that honor.

But now Trinity Town Center is actively seeking tenants.

The retail complex, at Little Road and Trinity Boulevard, is owned by Bill Planes, a Tarpon Springs man who once served three years in federal prison for embezzling $140,000 from a South Florida mortgage company.

Planes, who last made the news in 2012 when he was arrested and quickly released during a financial dispute with an Orange County software firm, has retreated to the background, opting instead for a new face to lease the 66 spaces in the shopping center surrounded by posh neighborhoods.

Enter Chuck Puccini, the former president and CEO of Bauer Foundation Corp., and the 2012 Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

"I drove by this place every day for years," said Puccini, 50, who has a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial. "It has so much potential."

The center has announced its first new tenant in seven years, Surf & Turf Market, which recently closed its location in Palm Harbor to move to Trinity. The market offers fresh seafood, aged steaks, a deli and produce. Raymond James has maintained a branch office there since 2007.

Crews were installing wiring in the store last week.

Puccini said other tenants have committed to open at Trinity Town Center, but he declined to name names, saying "we let the tenants do that when they're ready."

One task Puccini is working on as president of the operation is making sure the partly complete structures meet current codes. Those have changed since 2008, making the job a challenge.

Still, he said county officials have been supportive.

"The area is really screaming for great places," said County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, whose district includes the town center and surrounding neighborhoods. She said the center's location is a plus. So is its Mediterranean-style architecture. "I'm happy for the all the Trinity residents who may have a nice little corner to visit and congregate."

Starkey said she met with Planes several weeks ago and said he praised the county's new permitting process, which was developed while the center sat empty.

"He says he sees a big difference," she said.

Crews began building Trinity Town Center in 2007. In November of that year, Aristeo Construction filed a lien worth $485,847. Trinity Town Center sued, saying Aristeo had missed its deadline for filing the lien, but dropped it after the two sides reached a settlement.

More lawsuits followed. Planes' company, South Capital, then sued the companies doing business at Trinity Town Center. Records show some of the cases have been resolved.

Trinity Town Center took out a fifth mortgage in July for $102,000, records show, but still owes $1.3 million in loans. The county tax bill is nearly $73,000 and is due by April 1.

Records show Planes had a final home foreclosure judgment for $1.3 million in 2012. And his wife, Regina, filed for divorce last year.

Planes' financial troubles, coupled with the recession, left the town center dormant. County officials gave Planes deadlines to clean up the debris on the site. He complied.

Now the economy is starting to come back, with new home sites being cleared on State Road 54 just east of the town center and officials are celebrating the construction of a spec office building in Wesley Chapel, the first to be built since 2008.

"We've still got a long way to go," said Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James. "But you have to crawl before you can walk."

He said while people aren't using their home equity as ATMs for cars and vacations, they do feel more confident.

"They're feeling a bit wealthier," he said. "They should be able to go out to eat a little more often."

That's what Puccini is hoping for as he works to lure tenants. He touts the center's advantages over a traditional strip mall.

"It has synergy," he said. "A person can drop their child off at a dance studio upstairs and go downstairs and have a glass of wine."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

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