CLEARWATER — The gloomy saga of "the Strand" — a looming 15-story eyesore, its unfinished shell visible from every direction in downtown Clearwater — might have a happy ending.
An as-yet-unnamed Chicago investment group is seriously considering buying the distressed building at 1100 Cleveland St. and finishing the project, either as high-end condos and townhomes or as apartments, a real estate brokerage firm confirmed Friday.
That would be bad news for the homeless, partying teens and rodents that have sheltered, cavorted and scurried through the building since work stopped in the fall of 2009, but a welcome turn of events for the city, desperate to revive the sagging East Gateway district on the edge of downtown.
The group was scheduled to sign a contract on Friday, said Casey Babb, associate vice-president investments for Marcus & Millichap, a commercial brokerage firm that is marketing the property.
The Chicago firm, which has done billions of dollars of condo and apartment development nationally, can finance the $15 million or so to complete the project out of pocket, Babb said.
But first, it wants to tap on the weathered concrete and kick the rusty steel beams for a few months before closing on the deal, Babb said.
"It's been exposed to the elements in a salt-water environment for the last three years," Babb said. "It's not for the faint of heart."
If all goes well, the group could close on the building sometime this summer or early fall, he said.
City officials welcomed the glimmer of hope on a snake-bitten project that has bedeviled developers for more than a decade.
"It's promising," said Rod Irwin, assistant city manager for economic development.
It's the first time since the Strand, owned since 2004 by an American subsidiary of the Spanish firm Espacio, has been in serious play since work stopped on what was once touted as "a slice of European luxury," Irwin said.
Espacio representatives didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Irwin said part of the delay in finding a buyer was that Espacio had overpriced the building.
An original asking price of $16 million in November was cut a few months later to $12 million.
The city has levied $250 daily fines for code violations on the building since April 2013. Espacio has already paid $62,500, said City Clerk Rosemarie Call.
A buyer could absorb the outstanding fines — $32,250 as of Friday — or ask the city to reduce or eliminate the fines after they finish the project, said Joelle Castelli, a city spokeswoman.
After years of looking at a very depressing symbol of the real estate crash, city officials might be in a forgiving mood.
"Hopefully (the project) goes because if it does, that will be first domino to fall for that side of Clearwater," Babb said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago