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Pinellas County Health Department to expand to new site in Largo

The Pinellas County Health Department plans to create a new center at this Largo site to ease congestion at its Clearwater Center. The property in Largo was available after the FTC shut down a telemarketer it accused of fraud two years ago.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The Pinellas County Health Department plans to create a new center at this Largo site to ease congestion at its Clearwater Center. The property in Largo was available after the FTC shut down a telemarketer it accused of fraud two years ago.

After five years and an exploration of 19 different properties, the Pinellas County Health Department has found a new site to ease crowding at its Clearwater Center.

The 4.73-acre Largo property is centrally located and big enough for the Health Department's needs, said Stephanie Judd, financial administrator of the department.

The site at 8751 Ulmerton Road also happens to be the former home of a telemarketer that was raided by Federal Trade Commission two years ago.

The FTC accused the telemarketer, which did business under multiple names, including Strategia Marketing and Suntasia, of bilking consumers nationwide out of $172 million.

The property is available because the telemarketer and some of its executives were ordered late last year to turn over the property as part of a $16 million settlement with the FTC.

Last week, County Commissioners approved a $4.1 million contract to buy the property, located east of Keene Road.

The Health Department needs a new center so it can expand its clinics at its Clearwater Center, 310 N Myrtle Ave., Judd said. The department plans to relocate administrative staff, support staff and field workers from Clearwater to the new site.

By state law, county health departments, which are part of the state Department of Health, can't buy property. So, this fiscal year, the department asked the county not to distribute more than $4 million allocated from property taxes for its operations. The county kept those funds to buy the property. And, in return, the department used money from its trust fund to deliver the same dollar amount of services, Judd said.

The department plans to move its Healthy Families program to Largo. And in the future, the department also hopes to operate a variety of medical clinics, such as family planning and dental services, at the Largo center.

Medical clinics are not currently allowed on the property, which is classified as industrial limited. An attorney acting on behalf of the department has asked the city to consider changing its code to permit medical clinics in industrial limited areas, said Carol Stricklin, the city's community development director.

Largo is exploring that change and city leaders may consider the matter next month, she said.

The extent of renovations on the 42,574-square-foot Largo complex is not known yet, Judd said.

The sale is scheduled to close by the end of September. The department hopes to start revamping the two-story complex by early next year and complete the project between mid 2011 and early 2012.

The availability of the site traces back to July 2007, when the FTC raided the Strategia Marketing complex.

The FTC alleged that, between 1999 and 2007, the company used at least 15 business names to defraud as many as a million consumers throughout the country.

As part of the $16 million settlement, Suntasia Properties, Strategia Marketing and other related businesses and executives Bryon Wolf and Roy A. Eliasson were ordered to pay more than $11.25 million.

Eliasson also had to turn over a single-family home he owned in Clearwater and Wolf had to relinquish his two 2003 Honda Jet Skis, 2003 Ranger Cayman Flats Boat and 2004 Harley Davidson motorcycle.

During litigation, the court-appointed receiver also sold Suntasia's 80-foot corporate yacht and a second telemarketing facility that was being built in St. Petersburg.

The telemarketer and executives agreed to the settlement without admitting the allegations.

When Judd visits the Largo site, she often sees Wolf, she said. The complex is about 98 percent vacant and she expects the building to be empty when the department takes over.

Last week, there were signs for two businesses posted on the complex's doors. One was for Total Merchant Services and the other was for Bay Pines Travel, a defendant in the FTC case.

Todd Kossow, assistant director of the FTC's Midwest Region, said he didn't think the executives were running a telemarketing business anymore.

"As far as I know, they're not operating the same type of business they were operating before," Kossow said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

At a glance

Up next for the property

Next month: Discussion of zoning change, potential closing of sale.

2010: Potential construction start early in the year.

2011-2012: Potential completion and opening as a Pinellas County Health Department facility.

Pinellas County Health Department to expand to new site in Largo 08/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 6:00pm]
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