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Flags raised over developer hired by Pinellas

The Ohio company that Pinellas County leaders selected last year to explore development at the 240-acre Toytown landfill is reported to be in financial trouble and has delayed many of its signature projects in that state.

The St. Petersburg Times has learned that Bear Creek Capital also has failed to pay some of its local partners assisting with Toytown development studies.

Officials with Bear Creek Capital said Friday the recession is strangling their business, but insisted that they're not in danger of going under and remain committed to the Toytown venture and paying what they owe.

That rings false to Jerry Dabkowski, vice president of Volkert & Associates, a construction consulting firm in Tampa.

Dabkowski said the company had promised him $5,000 to develop and prepare a presentation on transportation at Toytown.

The presentation, he said, helped persuade county officials to pick Bear Creek over other companies vying for the opportunity.

But Dabkowski has yet to be paid for the work, completed roughly eight months ago. Further, he said, the company has told him he won't be paid.

"I would just as soon turn them over to the Better Business Bureau," Dabkowski said. "They don't pay their bills, and I don't think they should be doing business in Pinellas County."

Todd Pressman, a local land use consultant hired by Bear Creek, was asked by a Times reporter Friday how long it had been since the company paid him. His reply: "Much longer than I would like."

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Bear Creek has placed on hold or slowed several of its signature projects. Three executives recently left the company, which faces millions of dollars in liens for not having paid subcontractors, the newspaper reported.

Locally, Bear Creek has four months remaining in a year-long agreement with Pinellas County for the company to perform "due diligence" at Toytown, which is east of Interstate 275 and just south of the Roosevelt Boulevard exit.

Should the massive, $1 billion multiuse development Bear Creek has imagined be found feasible, the county would give the company the land for free. In return, the county would get future property tax revenue. Plus, any future liability related to the landfill would be assumed by the company.

Toytown is one of several locations likely to be considered for a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium by a group of community leaders, the ABC Coalition, tasked with identifying a new ballpark site.

Greg Scheper, Bear Creek's director of acquisitions and government affairs, said a stadium isn't in company plans, but the possibility could be explored if the community expresses interest.

Scheper said the economic environment for Bear Creek and other development companies is brutal. Some short-term cash flow issues are of immediate concern, he said, but the company will press on and pay its debts.

"We are working as hard as we can to get any outstanding invoices paid right now," Scheper said.

For several months, the company has been studying the geology of the landfill and the challenges the site presents to development.

The landfill would have to be capped to prevent the release of toxins and building would likely take place on pilings driven through garbage until they found solid footing.

Scheper said he believes there is a way to build on the site, it's just a question of how expensive the project would be. He said the company is getting "more and more comfortable" that a Toytown development could be profitable, but more study is needed.

The company must complete its examination by June 30.

Stacey Swank, a county business development manager, said if Bear Creek should walk away, the county would retain ownership of Toytown and be able to access all of the documents the company generated during its due diligence, information that could help guide initiatives at the site.

"Certainly we would like to have our local vendors paid promptly," Swank said. "But the county is not at a disadvantage should Bear Creek decide not to proceed."

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727)-445-4166.

Flags raised over developer hired by Pinellas 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 9:20pm]

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