DUNEDIN — As Dunedin's biggest property silently slips through a fourth year of vacancy, its developer faces his own problems: ballooning back taxes, a handful of lawsuits and claims of more than $40 million in unpaid loans.
City leaders acknowledge they're powerless to redevelop the 24-acre complex, left deserted since Nielsen Media Research sold it to Grady Pridgen in 2005. Yet Pridgen's financial plummet has inspired a glint of optimism in an otherwise desolate project: now, officials say, the land may get a second chance .
"Maybe a new owner comes into the picture and that changes everything. Maybe this speeds the day with a new owner. It might be a silver lining," said City Manager Rob DiSpirito. "The frustrating thing is, we literally don't have that control. We have to work with the current owner, whoever that may be."
Pridgen's reputation as an influential St. Petersburg developer evoked optimism from the City Commission in 2005 when he bought the land at 375 Patricia Ave. Nielsen sold the property and transferred 1,600 employees to its Oldsmar office, emptying three buildings and 211,000 square feet of office space.
"He was a well-known developer. He's done a lot of things in the county," said Vice Mayor Julie Scales. "I think people felt he might get something going."
Officials expected renovation and redevelopment, including new jobs, property tax payments and a revitalization of nearby businesses. Yet after four years of diagram and discussion, only the grass there has grown.
"For the better part of this last year we just haven't heard from him," DiSpirito said of Pridgen, who did not respond to messages this week. "The ball has been in his court. He openly needed to bring a proposal to the city for us to consider about some of those issues the city had identified and he ultimately never did. I can't speak for what was going on at his end, but it got awfully quiet."
The city soured on Pridgen's early ideas for the property. DiSpirito envisioned the office park as a "conglomeration of companies" that would bring intellectual work in health care, technology or research. Pridgen proposed condominiums.
"To this date, Grady Pridgen has not shared the vision of a commercial property," said Mayor Dave Eggers. "He's wanted us to really rezone that for a residential look. I think that market took care of itself."
"We're mostly residential as a community already," DiSpirito said. "What we don't have is an opportunity for good-paying jobs."
The planning phase stretched on for years, bringing with it new issues. Property records show Pridgen owes about $150,000 in back taxes on the land, and Economic Development Director Bob Ironsmith said late fees have added thousands more to the bill. No one mowed the complex's overgrown grass. Talks stalled.
"(Pridgen) never came with something that was solid and substantial and ready for development," Ironsmith said. "It was just conceptual discussion."
City officials see three options for the property: Pridgen submits a plan and begins development, he sells the land and moves on or the property is foreclosed. All options bring their own doubts, including questions of whether Pridgen could contribute the capital or whether another buyer could be found.
"This ownership issue has to sort itself out," DiSpirito said. "If he's going to be the owner he needs to bring forth a viable plan, which he has yet to do."
In the short term, DiSpirito said, the property's fate lies with Pridgen. City officials don't think that will last.
"I don't have a lot of optimism," Eggers said, "that he's going to be a part of the future of that property."
Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.