Dunedin waits for this project to take off

DUNEDIN — The developers, the senator, the representative, the mayor, they all held scissors and a bit of the red ribbon.

They smiled and snipped. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was a tradition they knew well, the opening hoopla of a new business, and this one on Main Street seemed no different from the next.

Except for this: There was no business. Besides some flagpoles and for-lease signs, the site of the ribbon-cutting last week was a desert of sand and weeds.

Call it a monument to wishful thinking. Underneath the sand run lines of drainage and water pipes, a "pad" that could form the foundation for a 93,000-square-foot complex planned for the northern entrance to downtown.

The Gateway, as it's called, still lacks what developers call "the vertical component" — any building or business through which the pad could connect. Considering the local glut of dead strip malls, they have opted out of "building spec" by opening an empty campus. They want tenants — enough to fill at least half the planned space — to first sign a pre-lease.

But so far, no one's made the commitment. Smaller tenants are interested but won't sign without an "anchor," something like a big restaurant or gourmet market, to hold down the site.

"A lot of those type grocers are not expanding," said Tom Harmer, the senior vice president for Pizzuti, which is developing the complex. "It's kind of a chicken-and-egg problem — what comes first."

Early work on the Gateway — planning, permitting, demolition of an old auto garage — began in 2006. About $4.5 million has been spent on acquiring the land bordered by Main Street, Milwaukee Avenue and Skinner Boulevard, improving the roads and installing the pad.

The plan calls for four buildings linked by sidewalks and a common parking core, with construction originally planned to begin last year. But until those tenants come, the project remains a waiting game.

Economic development director Bob Ironsmith said he's heard interest from restaurants, storefronts and even a multi-screen movie theater, though he won't name names. The upper floors of the complex's three-story main building, planned for across the street from Mease Dunedin Hospital, have been targeted toward medical offices.

The city, he said, is "actively hoping" for work to begin within the next nine months. But without any commitments, the true time line is undefined.

"The market needs to drive this project," Harmer said. "The economy's been slow. You don't see too many developers out there right now, because there's not a big demand for space."

Yet for all the development's uncertainty, the ribbon-cutting last week was still, as officials said, something to celebrate. Funded by a $1.3 million state grant, workers recently finished enhancing Main Street and Milwaukee Avenue, laying brick sidewalks and planting decorative streetlights and landscaping.

City Manager Rob DiSpirito, after answering questions for the city's TV broadcast, set the tone for the developers' optimism.

"We truly have set the stage." he said.

Times staff photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6244.

Dunedin waits for this project to take off 05/27/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 9:04pm]

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