NEW PORT RICHEY — Just four years ago, downtown New Port Richey had few champions as prominent as Peter Altman.
A former mayor turned county commissioner, Altman dreamed up Main Street Landing, a residential and retail project expected to revive the downtown, and recruited a well-known Gainesville developer to build it.
He tied his personal fortunes to those of the downtown, opening a restaurant and a boat and bait shop on a key riverfront corner to show, as he later put it, "that the city was alive."
That was then. Today, Main Street Landing is a shuttered construction site — and the most criticized project in the city. And the debt Altman built up trying, unsuccessfully, to make a go of his downtown businesses has come back to haunt him.
He owes $260,000 to the Spring Hill couple who hold the mortgage on his former downtown accounting office. He owes $40,000 to a New Port Richey couple who gave him a loan. He owes over $56,000 to Republic Bank. He owes $12,328 to a personal loan company.
"I lost everything I had, which was a risk I was willing to take," Altman said recently after a reporter inquired about the debt. "I think the real test of people is how they get back up again. It's going to happen. It won't happen today."
Altman, 51, has faded from public life in the city, particularly when it comes to Main Street Landing, where construction stopped in the summer of 2006 after City Council members narrowly rejected a new public financing request by Altman and Gainesville developer Ken McGurn.
Altman says he stays in touch with McGurn, but he has not attended any private meetings with city officials or the most recent public meeting at which McGurn told the City Council he had no timetable for finishing the project.
He attributes his reduced public profile to long workweeks — he works for a company that manages community development districts in the Tampa Bay area — and not to disappointment or a lack of interest. He says he sees opportunity in the abandoned construction site, and "there's nothing I'd like more than to participate in a solution to this situation."
But there is this reality: He is dealing with the fallout of his failed businesses. Altman faces lawsuits from his creditors in 6th Judicial Circuit Court over the debt, secured by his former accounting office building. The property will go to foreclosure auction.
In one case, Russell and Rocchina Martocci, the couple who hold the mortgage on the property, hired Altman's attorney brother, Tom, to represent them.
Both brothers say it's not a sore point in their family: Tom, who had represented the couple in other matters, said Peter had approached him to handle the case because he wanted to make sure the Martoccis, friends of his, are treated well. Peter does not dispute any facts of their case, which also says the couple had to pay property taxes for 2005-07 after he failed to do so. The Martoccis did not return a call for this story.
Looking back, Peter Altman said he was like a lot of investors who bet on real estate: He missed signs that harder days were coming.
"There was always a 'it's going to work' mentality," said Altman. "When the hurricanes are over. When the snowbirds are back. There were always signs of optimism."
At the time, he was a county commissioner and still had his accounting firm. He was trying not only to build enthusiasm around Main Street Landing but was also promoting the downtown to people like St. Petersburg developer Grady Pridgen, who ended up purchasing the restaurant building and leasing it to Altman. (Pridgen once had big plans for a $50-million mixed-use project at that site and other nearby parcels, but this year he put those properties up for sale.)
Then, little by little, Altman's personal financial picture began to change. He lost his County Commission seat. He closed his accounting office. He closed the boat and bait shop in late 2005, his Spoonbills restaurant in 2006.
Altman acknowledges he made rookie restaurateur mistakes: The building that housed Spoonbills was too big and cost too much to run. The menu was too pricey for the area.
But he said he had immersed himself in theories of downtown redevelopment, one of which holds that if you bring life to a place, more will follow.
He had tried it before: He had encouraged his wife, Barbara, to start a hot dog stand and a coffee shop. Neither one of those operations had a long shelf life, either, though Altman says that wasn't necessarily the point.
"I've always felt you shouldn't expect people to do something you don't do," he said.
Altman, one of seven siblings in a well-known New Port Richey family, has long been seen as a city visionary, who as mayor left his mark with such projects as streetscaping and the purchase of the James E. Grey Preserve but also with failed plans, like a children's museum and an idea to make Main Street one-way. He was often a flash point personality: Either people liked him and pointed to his bold ideas or they didn't and pointed to his failures.
Wendy Brenner, a former mayor and City Council member who served alongside Altman, said she never questioned his motives.
"He always put the city before himself. Sometimes that's not the right thing to do," she said. "A lot of politicians make money while they're in office. Peter didn't have that formula down. … It just goes to show people it wasn't about the money."
For his part, Altman says he does not know what comes next. He has accepted that he's in serious debt, that it affects his and his wife's future plans. He remains optimistic, though not overly sunny, about his prospects.
Not long ago, he was watching The Simpsons Movie. He recalled a scene in which Bart, after a particularly embarrassing skateboarding incident, declares to his father, Homer, that he is having the worst day of his life.
Homer corrects him: "The worst day of your life so far."
"When you're having the worst day of your life and you reflect on how you got into this crazy predicament, you just know you have to move forward," said Altman. "There will undoubtedly be days in the future that are worse. There will be, hopefully, days of victory and celebration.
"That's the way it is. I don't think any human can get away from it. I guess I can't stop believing in the city."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.