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Historic downtown Safety Harbor building could become assisted living facility

SAFETY HARBOR — At the busy corner of Main Street and Philippe Parkway, steps away from the public library and the waters of Tampa Bay, stands an 85-year-old, mustard-yellow building that will soon get a nearly million-dollar interior makeover.

The owner of the Harbor House plans to convert the second and third floors of the historic Main Street landmark into an upscale assisted living facility.

The Harbor House previously was named the St. James Hotel and the De Soto Hotel, according B.J. McMullen, owner of McMullen Flower Shoppe on the building's first floor.

McMullen, a 56-year tenant of the building, said she's seen dime stores, men's clothing stores and a seamstress come and go.

"I believe it was the first building in Pinellas County to have an elevator," she said.

According to a history provided by the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, Confederate veteran James F. Tucker arrived in the area in the early 1900s and purchased Espiritu Santo Springs, or Springs of the Holy Spirit, and the surrounding land.

In 1925, the Tucker family built a spa over the springs and the mission-style hotel across the street. The 36 rooms on the second and third floors housed overflow guests from the spa.

By the end of this year, those rooms could become homes for about 40 assisted living residents.

The owner of the building, Tampa-based Ucita Properties, has requested $53,125 from the city of Safety Harbor to put toward the roughly $800,000 project.

The request was made through the Downtown Partnership Program, which awards grants to businesses — both new and existing — for various types of projects, including demolition, construction and both interior and exterior renovations.

The program is designed to stimulate economic activity downtown.

Matt McLachlan, Safety Harbor community development director, wrote in a memorandum sent to the Planning and Zoning Board that Ucita's proposal is a departure from the grant program's original intent, since it involves office space being converted to a residential use.

But McLachlan noted that Ucita's plan does fit in with the city's effort to attract more residents to downtown.

At a Wednesday night meeting of the board, Ucita partner Ray Ploucher said the addition of new residents will provide more customers to businesses along Main Street.

He said new businesses might open to serve the specific needs of the elderly residents.

"I think there's going to be residual benefits," he said.

The board voted to recommend that the City Commission approve a reduced grant of $23,125. Some board members balked at awarding the requested $53,125, which would have drained nearly half of the grant program's $125,000 budget.

The remaining $30,000 will be granted to Ucita only if funds remain at the end of the fiscal year.

Still, board chair Jewel McKeon said the project seems promising.

"As our senior population increases, I can see this as an asset," she said. "I can see where this is an investment in our community."

Ucita partner Tom Krause said getting the grant money was not a condition for moving forward with the project. The City Commission will consider the grant request at Tuesday night's regular meeting.

Harbor House's first floor has housed shops and offices for years, but the lack of tenants in the office space upstairs prompted Ucita to get creative.

"We just see the need for a boutique, high-end assisted living facility," said Krause.

Major renovations include the construction of an entrance in the rear of the building, with a lobby and commercial kitchen on the first floor, and a new handicapped-accessible elevator.

The top two stories will have 18 one-bedroom assisted living units per floor. Each floor will have a common area, a dining room and a library, as well as the already-existing balconies overlooking Main Street.

Krause said a building permit should be issued this week, and construction is set to begin within a few weeks. Pending a license from the Agency for Health Care Administration once the work is complete, doors could open as soon as midsummer.

With the addition of about 40 new residents, local businesses owners like Tom Parisi hope to have a new set of regulars. Parisi, 40, of Oldsmar owns the nearby Dominic's Italian Grille and Pizzeria, and he said he thinks the new residents would fit into the lifestyle of Main Street.

"It's such a nice community for that sort of thing," he said.

Crispers restaurant cashier Dafna Blum, 43, of Safety Harbor said having more elderly citizens nearby can only help business.

"They have free time, and they are going to bring their friends and guests," she said.

Historic downtown Safety Harbor building could become assisted living facility 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 7:46pm]
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