NEW PORT RICHEY — In 2008, the city got a new manager and a new mayor, changed a longtime no-alcohol-in-the-park policy and took its first step toward legal action against the developers of Main Street Landing.
No small amount of changes, especially considering the economy again slowed activity in the city.
In February, the council unanimously named longtime public works director Tom O'Neill as city manager. He replaced Scott Miller, who left late last year to take a job in Kansas.
Nearly two months later, as council veterans Dan Tipton and Ginny Miller stepped down to pursue county offices, voters elected two first-time political candidates. Attorney Scott McPherson was elected mayor, and Greater New Port Richey Main Street executive director Judy DeBella Thomas won Miller's council seat.
McPherson picked up a live wire for his first major policy proposal: Allowing nonprofit groups to sell beer and wine at Sims Park and Orange Lake during special downtown events, such as Chasco Fiesta.
It became one of the most highly debated issues of the year, drawing dozens of people to City Hall. Opponents said the sales would change the character of the family-friendly park and would defy the will of residents, who voted against such sales in a 2000 referendum. Supporters said the sales would be highly regulated, that public opinion had changed and that sales would help raise money for struggling nonprofits and encourage visitors to return to downtown New Port Richey.
In the end, the council agreed 4-1 to give the sales a one-year tryout before deciding whether to make it permanent.
Officials also spent much of the year trying to nudge major redevelopment projects into action.
This summer, council members approved a preliminary financial agreement with Community Development Partners, a team of developers that wants to renovate and expand the city-owned Hacienda Hotel.
That agreement calls for the city to contribute $1.5-million toward the hotel, either in the form of a reduced purchase price, a 25-year abatement on lease payments or an up-front cash grant. If a proposed parking garage is in the mix, the city would owe an additional $3.2-million toward its construction.
Later in the year, however, Hacienda developers asked for — and got — more time: They are struggling to find financing amid the credit crunch.
Come January, the city expects a new round of proposals for its First Baptist Church property. One idea that gained some traction in 2008? Turning the church into a performing arts and cultural center. Local arts supporters have been meeting to come up with ways to make that happen.
And the city did get its long-anticipated streetscaping project, Railroad Square, off the ground this year. The first phase — which includes pavers, street lamps and a railroad crossing on Nebraska Avenue — is almost completed.
But the biggest project, Main Street Landing, sat as a dormant construction site for another year since shutting down in the summer of 2006. Developer Ken McGurn met with the City Council this fall and said he was still considering finishing the building facades but did not yet have a time frame.
Then, this month, things got interesting. Turned out the city had prepared —though not filed — a lawsuit against McGurn, accusing him of violating a city contract in which he agreed to finish the project by the now impossible deadline of March 2009 in exchange for a $1.25-million grant. The draft lawsuit also calls the Main Street Landing construction site an eyesore and public nuisance and asks that it be demolished.
McGurn responded to the news by informing the city he was walking away from the contract and giving up his shot at the $1.25-million. He said he'd still like to finish the project but does not know when. City Council members put off until January future discussion of legal action.
New Port Richey also gets to boast that in 2008 it hosted two major Pasco political events at Sims Park: visits by vice presidential nominees Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Both events went off without a hitch.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.