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Hospital land deal in hands of Tarpon Springs voters

TARPON SPRINGS — A proposed agreement between Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, the city and a developer could bring doctors, jobs and affordable housing to the southern edge of downtown, officials say.

But first, Tarpon Springs voters would have to agree to the deal.

Three referendum questions on next Tuesday's ballot will ask city voters to amend the city's lease with the hospital. Saying yes would make two parcels of land just north of the hospital available to developers who propose a mixed-use project at the site.

Developer AG Armstrong already owns 7.2 acres north of the hospital and plans to build a shopping center anchored by a Sweetbay supermarket on its land.

If voters agree to amend the hospital's lease with the city, the developer could acquire 2.2 acres between its land and the hospital on the eastern side of Alt. U.S. 19.

And apart from the land at issue Tuesday, the developer is still trying to acquire another 7.2 acres nearby. Voters already have approved the sale of that larger parcel, but the deal stalled in 2006 after a title search revealed that the city had already leased the property to the hospital.

Now representatives of the developer, AG Armstrong, said they believe the problem that has tied up the 7.2 acres can be resolved and said they've been working with the city and the hospital to that end.

Combined, the 16.6 acres would make possible a mixed-use project called Meres Crossing. At its northern end, near Meres Boulevard, would be the shopping center anchored by Sweetbay. Between that and the hospital would be a new medical office building, parking garage, assisted living facility and apartments or condos.

"The northern part of the project is moving forward; the southern portion is predicated on the referendum passing," said John Heuer, vice president of AG Armstrong.

Construction on the shopping center should begin this summer or fall and be completed by November 2009, Heuer said. He said it is difficult to predict when construction would begin on the southern portion, should voters agree to the lease amendments. The entire project could cost $30-million to $100-million to build, he said.

"It's like 1,001 moving pieces at this time, as everything is being lined up," Heuer said.

Hospital and city officials say the deal is a win-win for Tarpon Springs residents who would benefit by having doctors' offices and the hospital side by side.

A new medical arts building next to the hospital would also help draw new doctors, said Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital CEO Don Evans.

"Without high-quality office space adjacent to the hospital, it just makes it more difficult for us to recruit physicians to the community," Evans said.

If voters approve Question 1, the lease would be changed to allow the hospital to sell a 0.62-acre parcel in exchange for use of 100 spaces in the proposed parking garage. That land is on the north end of the main hospital parking lot and currently has 78 parking spaces.

If approved, Question 2 would allow the hospital to delete a 1.6-acre city-owned parcel from the lease, so it, too, could be sold to AG Armstrong. Together, the two small parcels would make up the 2.2 acres the developer is seeking.

City Commissioner Peter Dalacos said he didn't support the original proposal to put townhomes on the 7.2 acres that voters have already approved selling.

"We need to be buying open space and conserving wetlands, and that was my main thrust in fighting it at that time," he said.

But the developer's new plan will obviously benefit the hospital and the Tarpon Springs residents who use it, he said. Another plus will be the extension of Meres Boulevard to Safford Avenue, he said. City officials have envisioned connecting Meres to U.S. 19 to create another hurricane evacuation route.

But Dalacos said he still has concerns about stormwater drainage issues and mitigation of wetlands included in the property.

The final referendum question would allow the hospital to sell a medical arts building it owns at 2114 Seven Springs Blvd. in unincorporated Pasco County.

Hospital administrators say the proceeds from the sale would go toward capital improvement projects at the hospital.

>>on the web

To learn more

To view a sample ballot for the March 11 election, go the city's Web site at www.ci.tarpon-springs.fl.us/text.html, and click on "Sample Ballot March 11, 2008" on the left side of the page.

Hospital land deal in hands of Tarpon Springs voters 03/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2008 9:32pm]
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