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Economy puts armory redevelopment plans into limbo

The Florida National Guard’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory at 504 N Howard Ave. is no longer needed by the Guard.

Times files (2001)

The Florida National Guard’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory at 504 N Howard Ave. is no longer needed by the Guard.

WEST TAMPA — It was to be the centerpiece of a West Tampa renaissance.

City Council member Charlie Miranda called it the "beginning of a new West Tampa." He and the council voted unanimously two years ago to rezone the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory to become Heritage Square, a luxury hotel, spa, marketplace park and cultural arts center.

The vote paved the way for a three-way deal involving the developers, city and the Florida National Guard, which owns the property but had no more use for it.

The project would honor West Tampa's past with its Spanish style and building names while modernizing a neighborhood in a slow revival. The developers, led by Intelident Solutions, would transform 10.3 acres at 522 N Howard Ave. into a campus that would generate $250 million a year for West Tampa, and more than 2,000 jobs. It was to be ready by 2012.

Instead, like so many projects in this recession economy, it is stalled at the gate.

"It was a great start, but I'm not too sure about the finish," Miranda said this week. "I don't think anything's going to happen in this term of office and maybe the next term. I think it'll be stalled five years."

The developer is putting out a similar message.

"We are disappointed that negotiations between Heritage Square LLC and the Florida National Guard for the 10-acre armory parcel in West Tampa have reached an impasse," Christine Duffy, a project spokeswoman said in a recent statement. "As a result, the preliminary agreement and further negotiations have been temporarily shelved."

The National Guard called the armory home until 2004, when the unit moved to Pinellas County, leaving behind a small maintenance group. The city holds long-standing rights to acquire the building if the Guard abandoned it, and Tampa agreed to release those rights if both parties agreed on a redeveloper.

A committee of National Guardsmen, city officials and community members ranked private proposals and settled on the $98.3 million Heritage Square.

In July 2007, Heritage Square signed an agreement to acquire the property. The agreement required developers to relocate the remaining National Guard members to a new home before they could close.

But that never transpired and, soon, the economy lurched into a recession.

Jon Myatt, spokesman for the Florida Department of Military Affairs, said the National Guard continues to maintain the armory property as it waits for a buyer. The National Guard is close to reaching an agreement with a Tampa television production company to rent the property for a year, Myatt said, "so we can pay for maintenance and make some money, get lawns mowed, so it's not just sitting there."

Intelident officials declined to comment beyond their statement. After the Times called about the project, the company erased all the content on an expansive Heritage Square project Web site that had been up for years.

Intelident Solutions, a dental technology and management company with almost 1,000 employees, is located at the One Metro Center building in the West Shore business district. The company bought the historic Tampa Cuba Cigar Factory at 1202 N Howard Ave. a couple of years ago and planned to restore it into its headquarters.

But that project has also moved slowly because of prevailing economic conditions, according to the company's Web site.

It's not known what the next step will be for the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

Heritage Square had impressed everyone with its grand and stylish plans and phases. The Market Place at the Armory was pitched as a 10,000-square-foot open-air European farmers market in the armory courtyard. The 1941 vintage armory building would be left intact and remodeled to hold ethnic restaurants, cafes, boutiques and specialty retailers. Art studios and office space would occupy the second floor.

Hotel Sevilla, a 300-room Spanish-themed hotel named for West Tampa's first hotel, and the George N. Benjamin Park would spring up on the grounds, too, and parking structures.

In 2006, Tampa Growth Management and Development Services director Cyndy Miller said if Heritage Square fell apart, the armory could go to the next development proposal in line.

Finalists passed over for Heritage Square included the Armory Partners Group, pitching a mixed-use development that included a film studio and soundstage; and Reliant Development, which planned an ice rink, events center and residential complex.

But in all likelihood, the process to redevelop the site will start over.

"Even in the best markets, redeveloping the armory is a challenging project," said Mark Huey, Tampa Economic and Urban Development administrator. "There is no plan that the city has in place to re-initiate the development project."

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Economy puts armory redevelopment plans into limbo 01/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 5:53pm]
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