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New Port Richey may cut ties with Hacienda developer

NEW PORT RICHEY — It may be time for a Jacksonville developer to check out of the Hacienda Hotel.

City officials have been in negotiations for six years with Community Development Partners to restore and expand the historic building into an upscale boutique hotel and spa with a restaurant and meeting space. But the talks continue to stall, and City Council member Bill Phillips said it may be difficult for the developer to come up with the $20 million to get the project going.

At a workshop Thursday evening, Phillips suggested it's time for both sides to move on.

"I think we need to close that door," he said.

Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe called for a resolution to be placed on the agenda for Tuesday's council meeting, when the board can vote on whether to officially sever talks with CDP.

Council members Bob Langford and Judy DeBella Thomas told the Times they both thought it was time to part ways.

"I think they've (CDP) made Herculean efforts to try to make the project happen, but we really have to take some action at this point," DeBella Thomas said.

CDP vice president Andy Ham said Friday he had not been informed of the work session, and he declined to comment until his firm received official word from the city on it how wants to proceed.

The city purchased the Hacienda Hotel for $2.21 million back in 2004, hoping to make it a cornerstone of the downtown redevelopment effort. But previous plans to turn the now-empty building into a lecture hall or a bed-and-breakfast fell apart.

Then CDP proposed expanding the Hacienda into a 93-room boutique hotel with restaurant and retail spaces, plus a conference area and spa. In order for the project to be financially viable, though, the developers said they would need to add more rooms. Various proposals included expanding west — which would mean knocking down the popular playground at Sims Park — or building an addition on the other side of Bank Street, in the Gloria Swanson parking lot.

Legal constraints prevented the project from expanding into Sims Park, but the Gloria Swanson site showed promise. But Interim City Manager Susan Dillinger said talks have stalled again over the "term sheet" — an agreement laying out the project timeline and requirements for performance bonds.

So if the council decides to move on, what's next for the Hacienda?

Phillips suggested planning a community cleanup day in January for the property, inside and out, to get the first two floors operational for tours by potential buyers or renters looking for retail space.

The idea came, Phillips said, after he toured the building with Marlowe. They agreed the conditions inside the hotel were not nearly as bad as its broken windows and dirty exterior suggest.

He likened the idea of a cleanup day to the massive community turnout in 1990 for the construction of the Sims Park playground.

"We need to get it to the place where people can walk through it and see our vision," Phillips said of the Hacienda.

Phillips also put up $200 of his own money for an after-cleanup party for everyone who takes part in the work. Marlowe, Langford and Pasco Economic Development Council president John Hagen offered to match that amount.

Hagen's agency recently reached a $60,000 agreement to provide economic development services to New Port Richey, including jumpstarting efforts at the Hacienda. He told council members on Thursday evening that he also toured the building and was encouraged.

"I expected to see a lot worse situation than I saw," he said. "You can't help but walk through that building and get excited."

Members of the public also encouraged movement on the property. Resident Craig Carmichael said renovations to the Hacienda should include upgrades to all city-owned properties in the area, notably the Gene Sarazen Pavilion in Sims Park.

He also envisioned the construction of docks on the city's river frontage allowing boaters to stop and take in the downtown, which could include a restaurant, coffee shop and ice cream business at the Hacienda. Having docks could also spur tour boats and kayak rentals at the park as well, he said.

Marlowe said he liked the docks idea. He also suggested the council look at revamping an ordinance that prohibits commercial business in the park outside of special events.

While New Port Richey contemplates its next move on the Hacienda, it is drawing interest on another investment property: the former First Church of Christ Scientist property at 6131 River Road.

Interim City Manager Susan Dillinger said three entities have expressed interest in either leasing or buying the 2.3-acre site, which the city purchased for $1.05 million back in 2006. One of those parties is the Millennium Academy (formerly the Renaissance Academy), a private K-12 school. Headmaster Lori Ekblad said the school is growing and is looking to move from its Port Richey location.

The city originally bought the site to provide overflow parking for the Sims Park boat ramp and to attract some kind of redevelopment, but that never materialized. The debt service on this property and others has put a financial strain on the city.

In order to sell the property, which was purchased with Community Redevelopment Agency funds, the city would need to put it out for bid and approve the sale through an ordinance.

The site would also need to be rezoned from residential to commercial, City Attorney Mike Davis said.

New Port Richey may cut ties with Hacienda developer 11/30/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 8:50pm]
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