NEW PORT RICHEY
There's a recipe for fueling an urban renaissance, and real estate developer Frank Starkey is betting the city of New Port Richey has the ingredients. He is backing it up with a big investment in three downtown projects.
"New Port Richey has the bones in place. It has the synergy and structure to allow anything to happen," said Starkey, 48, an avid advocate of new urbanism.
The city is in a prime location, he points out, nestled along the Pithlachascotee River, which winds through the James E. Grey Preserve, by the newly renovated Sims Park and into the Gulf of Mexico. There's a walkable grid, a quaint downtown and picturesque Orange Lake. Even the shabby outskirts and empty storefronts have appeal, according to Starkey, because, "Every urban redevelopment story starts out that way."
Add to that a storied history.
Golfing great Gene Sarazan invented the modern sand wedge here in 1931 and designed a golf course along the banks of the Pithlachascotee. Silent film star Thomas Meighan fostered a notion to develop the "Hollywood of the East" during the 1920s in New Port Richey, giving rise to two crown jewels of the jazz age — the Hacienda Hotel and the Meighan Theatre, now Richey Suncoast Theatre. That hopeful era fizzled with the Great Depression.
There is a growing sense the tide is turning. And Starkey, fueled by a residential trend toward walkable communities and a supportive City Council, is diving in.
His premier effort, with financial partner Jim Goodchild, is "The Central," an upscale, 85-unit apartment complex meant to appeal to empty-nester baby boomers and millennials with incomes of $50,000 or more. The $10 million project, slated to break ground this fall, calls for a series of mansion-like buildings to be built on Circle Boulevard, on the east side of Orange Lake on property the New Port Richey Community Redevelopment Agency purchased for $3.1 million in 2005. Plans to develop the former site of First Baptist Church never materialized until Starkey brought his proposal to the City Council.
Starkey also partnered with designer Jose Cardenas to refurbish a 9,600-square-foot retail space at 5800 Main St. Wright's Natural Market, a 23-year-old mom-and-pop business currently on U.S. 19, will be the anchor tenant. Other expected businesses will include a jewelry store, a music store and a microbrewery.
"One of our goals is to revitalize active retail on Main Street," Starkey said. "It helps to prime the pump and is mutually supportive of (The Central)."
Starkey is also the financial backer for a duplex renovation project on Florida Avenue undertaken by Andy Mikulski, a project manager at People Places LLC, and Lia Gallegos of Rock the Boat Productions, an event company Starkey uses.
That project is over budget, largely because the house had not been updated since it was built in 1947, said Mikulski, "and because Frank insists on doing it right."
Starkey chalks it up as a learning experience — one that aligns with his belief that locals with modest means and developers like himself can be part of authentic urban redevelopment, similar to what has taken place in Seminole Heights in Tampa, Dunedin, Largo and Safety Harbor.
"On the map, they are tiny, little dots," he said. "New Port Richey is one of those dots that has had some degree of renaissance."
Things have been happening.
The redevelopment of Sims Park has brought steady traffic to the city. Improvements to the adjacent Hacienda Hotel are chugging along. Construction is under way again at Main Street Landing, a promised blend of retail and residential space that stalled to the dismay of many during the economic downturn of 2007. It is now projected to open next summer.
Downtown stalwarts have been joined by newer endeavors such as Sugar Darlings cupcake store, Ottaway's Parkside Ice Cream Parlor, the White Heron Tea Room, Sip Wine Bar, Beef 'O' Brady's, the Gateway Gallery and Emporium and a technology company called MyNetworkOne.
"I feel like we're in the center of an upper renaissance in the New Port Richey area," said Lisa Bolster, who owns Sip with her husband, Kris. "The architecture is what stole our hearts. But the promise that the city showed with the new park, and projects like Frank's, gave us the reassurance to come here."
Businesses are driven to the city by a growing residential base, said city economic development director Mario Iezzoni.
"They see these other cities and how their urban cores have developed. People must be there to support the businesses," Iezzoni said. "That's why Frank's vision is so important. That's why his projects are so important."
Jeff and Kathy Wright are moving their natural food store downtown, lured in part by the location, the promise of new residents and a $250,000 commercial real estate development grant from the city, split between Starkey ($150,000) and the Wrights ($100,000).
"I think the new location will make it easier for people to find us, but I'm still a little nervous," said Jeff Wright, who hopes to open before the winter holidays. "We are taking a big step of faith. The city is taking a big step of faith. And Frank and his partners are taking a big step of faith. We are all in it. It's sort of sink or swim."
City Council members who support The Central, as well as Main Street Landing, point to a 2015 study conducted by Zimmerman Volk, a marketing strategy firm in New Jersey.
Among the findings: a need for an additional 500 residential units to support local businesses, with 375 of those being rentals.
"The Zimmerman Volk study was a real eye opener. Once we saw that, (Starkey) had the green light," said Deputy Mayor Jeff Starkey, who is no relation to Frank Starkey. "Once it's done, it's a real game changer. We're going to turn this to more of a walkable community where you can get out of your car and you won't need your car till you leave downtown. I think it's the way to go."
"There are going to be a bunch of changes that are going to happen, and Frank's getting out in front of it," said Mayor Rob Marlowe, who predicts a waiting list of apartment applicants.
The site of the old Community Hospital in New Port Richey is one of 14 locations being considered for a VA outpatient clinic, Marlowe noted, adding that employees of the clinic might want to live nearby.
"We're going to make this place a wonderful place to live," Marlowe said. "Frank is a visionary when it comes to that, and I think what he's reading in the tea leaves might be spot on."
Among residents, opinions vary on the projects.
The vision appeals to Annie Roesler and her husband, Brian, both 30. They grew up in New Port Richey, left for college, and now rent a house in downtown for $800 a month.
"We were able to find something nicer, but most rentals are kind of rundown — kind of sad," said Annie Roesler, who telecommutes for an educational technology company in Boston. "I like the idea of having more nice housing with character, the ability to live in downtown and walk to places. I cannot afford to buy a house right now, but I would like to live somewhere nice."
While excited about the prospect of a nearby grocery store, neighbors Rex Phelps and Jennifer Melton, who own homes on Central Avenue, behind where the apartments will be built, aren't enthused about The Central. The primary concern: parking.
Plans call for 97 on-site spaces for Central residents. There will be 49 public street parking spaces available, of which 16 are new, according to Starkey.
"That's not enough," said Melton. "Eighty-five units times two people, that's 170 people."
Apartments dwellers will take street parking spaces that current residents use, Melton said. It will strain the city's infrastructure. Construction will be disruptive. The buildings are too tall. She will lose her view of the lake.
Phelps, who purchased his house for the front porch, thinks local demographics won't support rents expected to start at $1,100 a month. The bull market could plummet. The upscale apartments could turn into low-income housing. And there's enough of that already, he said.
That won't happen, Starkey said. The first phase of The Central will start with 23 apartments, allowing investors to regroup if rentals don't move. Presently, parking is only a problem during special events, he said, and the city is reviewing sites for a parking garage to help deal with that. Car-to-go services like Uber and Lyft are changing the need to own a car, and driverless cars are on the horizon, he added.
Phelps doesn't buy it.
"We don't have good public transportation here," he said. "People buy cars. People like their cars, and if you don't believe that you need to talk to the guy at Friendly Kia."
Even so, he said, "I'm not against what (Starkey) is doing. I think what he's doing is great as long as it gets done right. There's the trick. The devil is in the details."
Starkey's name carries weight. But so, he figures, should his reputation.
His grandfather was cattle rancher Jay B. Starkey. His grandmother was Blanche M. Straub, daughter of William Straub, a former publisher of the St. Petersburg Times. His parents, Jay B. Starkey Jr., and Marsha (Miller) Starkey, raised four children on the family's Pasco ranch, bordering a park named for their grandfather.
"My dad was more motivated by stature than status. Grandad was the same way," he said. "He was concerned with leading with character."
Starkey attended Gulf High, Gulf Junior High and Elfers Elementary when Mittye P. Locke, for whom the school was later named, was principal. His family shopped at the IGA Potter Brothers grocery store, on the Main Street site he is redeveloping.
He studied architecture at Rice University and cut his teeth developing the upscale Longleaf community in Trinity with his brother, Trey, who raises blueberries and is married to county Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.
He served on the Rollins College Masters of Planning in Civic Urbanism Advisory Board. He is a past president of the National Town Builders Association, former chairman of the Seaside Institute and was the first developer in residence at the University of Miami's Masters in Real Estate + Urbanism program.
When the family sold its 2,300-acre ranch for $54 million in 2013, Starkey went looking for projects. He honed in on his hometown.
In 2015, he moved his business, People Places LLC, from the home he shares with his husband in Trinity to Main Street in New Port Richey. Soon after that, he began hosting "Talk About Town" public forums to educate and encourage dialogue, with a focus on urban development and his local projects. Other topics included human trafficking, the local music scene, the work of the Humane Society and the advent of medical marijuana.
While currently invested in an urban redevelopment project in Winter Garden and a vacation property in Wilton Manors in South Florida, Starkey figures 90 percent of his business is wrapped up in New Port Richey.
"Our desire is for New Port Richey to do well. The challenge is to grow in a way that is appropriate, that takes it to the next level in a way that will not overwhelm it — does not push it beyond what the current fabric would support," he said, noting that Manhattan in New York City was once farmland and that cows used to graze around New Port Richey's Orange Lake.
"The long view is that the way a place is built initially — it doesn't stay that way. That's what's cool about cities. They have multiple lives."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.