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Art collector ends talks on new museum, restaurant for Tampa riverfront

TAMPA — A private art collector has terminated negotiations to build a museum and riverfront restaurant at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park after growing frustrated that he couldn't get a five-year commitment of financial support from City Hall.

"It has become apparent that, after nearly a year of discussions regarding the terms of the proposed agreement, the city of Tampa does not have the willingness to fully embrace the project," Rudy Ciccarello of Palm Harbor wrote in a letter this week to Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The city seems to like the idea of the museum, Ciccarello said, but it wants to "totally control the process" and will "show no political courage to commit to support the museum in its infancy."

As a result, Ciccarello said he will look to acquire his own site, possibly elsewhere in Tampa or in St. Petersburg.

In announcing that negotiations had broken down, Buckhorn said on Friday that he appreciated Ciccarello's interest. He said Tampa officials spent a lot of time investigating Ciccarello's proposal and its potential benefits to the city.

Unfortunately, Buckhorn concluded, the city couldn't strike a balance between Ciccarello's needs and "our ability to participate given the current fiscal environment."

This summer, Ciccarello, 66, laid out a plan to develop the American Craftsman Museum in a 42-page proposal to the city.

The proposed site was a 1.2-acre strip where Curtis Hixon park's restrooms and offices now stand. That would have put the museum across the park's lawn from the Tampa Museum of Art and Glazer Children's Museum downtown. The project was to include a 4,000-square-foot upscale restaurant.

The nonprofit Two Red Roses Foundation, which Ciccarello started with art from his own collection, would lend the new museum $45 million worth of furniture, pottery, ceramic tiles, metal work, woodblocks, fine art, lighting, textiles, stained glass and other decorative objects from the American arts and crafts movement, which flourished from about 1900 to 1920.

Ciccarello further proposed to arrange financing for the $31 million building. As part of that, he said he would pledge his own assets to provide collateral for a construction loan and to cover any shortfalls during construction. Ciccarello founded Florida Infusion Services, a distributor of drugs and medical supplies with annual sales of $440 million.

In return, Ciccarello asked the public to contribute $1 million a year for the first five years the museum was open. The foundation also asked:

• To lease the land for the museum from the city for $1 a year for 99 years.

• For the buildings on the property to be demolished and the site prepared for construction at city expense.

• For waivers of impact fees, utility hookup fees and property taxes for the life of the museum.

But in his letter to Buckhorn, Ciccarello said the city had only said it would make good faith efforts, subject to the approval of the City Council, to provide $500,000 a year for five years.

Ciccarello, who did not respond to a request for further comment, told Buckhorn there were other problems with the city's offer: The budget approval for the money wouldn't come until October 2013. The city wanted to limit space for the restaurant and gift shop. Commercial enterprises and special events at the museum would be restricted. Construction would have to take place in no more than two years.

More disturbing, Ciccarello said, was that Tampa officials proposed terms in the lease covering potential defaults that could put the ownership of the building into the city's hands.

"If things don't work out," he said, the city could "end up with the museum building and all improvements."

Because the city budgets its money annually, it just wasn't in a position to give the project the kind of five-year commitment that Ciccarello sought, said Bob McDonaugh, the city's administrator for economic opportunity.

"We're disappointed because we think it's a great idea," McDonaugh said. "I've seen the guy's collection, and it's fabulous. It was a generous offer. We just can't give them the assurances that they want."

Buckhorn isn't the first Tampa mayor to want a restaurant at Curtis Hixon park. His predecessor, Pam Iorio, likewise talked about bringing in a riverside restaurant accessible by foot or by boat. On Friday, Buckhorn said the city would continue to explore ways to expand its cultural amenities and bring more activity to the Riverwalk.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

Art collector ends talks on new museum, restaurant for Tampa riverfront 11/02/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 2, 2012 11:17pm]
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