Developer offers land for civic center plus building contract

RIVERVIEW — A local developer who offered up land for the Brandon Advantage Center at a bargain price will be first in line to design and build the multi-million-dollar project, board members say.

And he's named a projected cost that's more than double the money raised so far.

Last month, developer John Sullivan approached the project's nonprofit board with an offer: He'd sell them a $4-million parcel of land at his Winthrop development in Riverview for only $750,000.

The board members were pleased. For years, the Advantage Center — a planned multi-purpose civic center — had been a dream without a home.

"No one else has stepped up to the plate" to offer land, board president Miller Dowdy said.

Sullivan says the offer "has no strings."

But Dowdy says there was a condition: Sullivan would be the "preferred" contractor on the project.

"Could I have brought in another contractor? Sure," Dowdy said.

"But then, as part of the deal, we would have had to pay fair market value for the land."

Sullivan, however, said there was no quid pro quo on the land deal.

"There's always the soft loyalties to someone who stepped up and did something, but that's the extent of it," he said. "If I donate my time and do something, they will think of me first when they do something."

The St. Petersburg Times leases office space from Sullivan at Winthrop Town Centre in Riverview

Both Sullivan and Dowdy stressed that the board has not yet contracted with Sullivan.

But the project hasn't been offered to anyone else, and the board hasn't solicited bids on the project-management job, Dowdy said.

"When you have an offer in front of you of $3- to $4-million (in savings on the land price), it's very hard to say, 'Why don't you hold that and we'll see if anyone else will offer us that kind of money?' " he said.

Although the Advantage Center will be funded in part by tax dollars, as a private-public partnership, there's no legal requirement for a competitive bidding process, said Ben Wilcox, executive director of the government-accountability group Common Cause Florida.

"I do feel that it's very difficult to determine who's really benefiting here," he said. "And as for the use of public funds, whether that's being spent in the most efficient and effective ways, it's impossible to tell given the nature of the deal that's been made."

Last month, there was a series of public meetings to gather input from the community about the center and to explore the building's projected cost.

When they were done, one of his estimators came up with the projected price tag of $8.2-million.

So far, state Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, has secured only about $3.4-million in state and federal funding for the quasi-public project. Organizers had hoped to raise private donations to cover the rest.

Part of the reason for the higher cost is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has increased its requirements for hurricane shelters — one of the Advantage Center's projected uses.

For example, instead of requiring shelters to withstand only 120 mph winds, the agency now requires them to withstand winds of 200 mph.

FEMA had promised $1.4-million in funds before changing its standards but has yet to increase the figure to match, said Rachel Burgin, Traviesa's aide.

Similar projects across the state are in a similar bind, Burgin said.

"There have been other centers that said, 'Forget it, we're not having a hurricane shelter,' and they found other ways to fund it," she said.

Now, the center's planners are asking the agency to increase the funding to match the heightened standards, Dowdy said.

"You can't change the standards on us and then expect us to build with the old dollars," he said.

"We have to come up, as a board, with a way for each component of the center to pay for itself."

Sullivan agreed.

"We're not looking at this as being a major financial coup for us," he said.

"I don't know if you'd want to take on a project that cost $8.2-million and there's $3.4-million in the bank. Most people wouldn't do that."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at srosenbaum@sptimes.com or 661-2442.

Developer offers land for civic center plus building contract 04/17/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 19, 2008 9:43am]

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