CLEARWATER — The downtown Harborview Center has long been the city's white elephant — a costly concrete pain in the neck.
Closed in 2009 and emptied out last year, the old trade center still costs the city $60,000 a year to maintain — money that officials would love to save with the help of a demolition crew.
Only one problem: The building's last tenant, a deli called Pickles Plus Too, isn't willing to budge. Its owners fear the moving costs and business losses they could suffer if they left their longtime home. And the city can't exactly push them out, they say, since their lease runs for another decade.
Now the owners, siblings Kim and Joe Benedettini, allege that Clearwater is turning the screws to force them out. Fencing off entryways. Threatening to shut off water. Disrupting business with construction. Even, they say, encouraging local homeless people to use it as a squatting point.
The deli is suing the city, saying each step is part of a larger directive to "turn up the heat" and break the lease. The lawsuit represents an aggressive new phase of hostility between the two former partners, who have sparred for years over the future of the Harborview Center — and what it takes for a small business to survive.
"This is not a corporation. These are not gazillionaires with a restaurant on the side. This is their livelihood," said Pickles spokeswoman Lisa Brock. "This is just something they feel they have to do."
The effort to push Pickles out began, the suit alleges, when Stein Mart, the center's main tenant, closed in 2009. Officials made little effort to replace the emptied storefront, deli owners said, and ignored their request to lower the deli's rent with the loss of the building's biggest draw.
But the city's "overt and constant" bullying, the suit alleges, had just begun. City employees began directing traffic away from the center and actively discouraging customers during events. Constant construction and road closures disrupted business. The deli was cited for a grease-trap violation, even though the trap is the city's responsibility, according to the suit. And cleaning crews began to neglect the deli's outside common area, providing a space for the homeless to stay and sleep.
In January, city customer service director Jim Geary wrote to the deli that the city would sever its water and sewer service unless it agreed to a minimum monthly bill of $2,700, in keeping with the center's larger water meter.
The deli's attorneys called the letter a "clear act of retribution" for requests to renegotiate the rent.
City Attorney Pam Akin said she would not comment on the suit.
The city has offered little incentive to move, Brock said. The only proposal for a new site is on Cleveland Street, downtown's main drag, with none of the waterfront view or parking that its current home offers in spades.
"There's more and more pressure … but there aren't any more viable solutions," Brock said. "Moving is very costly, and building another restaurant is not like moving office furniture. That kind of money isn't just sitting around."
The 50-year-old building, once a Maas Brothers department store, was renamed and remodeled in 1995 to hold a Stein Mart, a community room and space for trade shows and banquets. But the center never quite worked. Meeting space was limited. There were too few nearby hotel rooms. Support beams cut into the exhibit floor.
In 2009, after Stein Mart had packed and left, the city closed the center, saving $350,000 a year.
Pickles, a sit-down deli, originally opened in 1998, to the delight of the owners and city officials. "They were one of the first to invest in that area and see the promise in it and stick their necks out," Brock said. "It's very difficult for them now for the city to say, 'We have other plans.' "
With the dispute now headed to court, it's not likely the Harborview will see a wrecking ball any time soon. But if the city had its choice, officials would likely go out to bid for a demolition firm. Afterward, the city would sod the site, which connects to Coachman Park.
Brock said the owners didn't want to resort to litigation, but they had no choice. "They understand the city's situation," Brock said. "They want to be cooperative. But there has to be a solution that works for them."
Contact Drew Harwell at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.