NEW PORT RICHEY — City Council members held off Tuesday evening on taking any legal action against Main Street Landing developers, saying they want to give city administrators more time to negotiate an incentive package that could get the stalled project moving again.
What those negotiations would entail is unclear. Council members, meeting as directors of the Community Redevelopment Agency, did not vote on a specific course of action.
There was no specific consensus, either, except to stay out of a courtroom, at least for now, and let administrators work with Main Street Landing developers.
Main Street Landing developer Ken McGurn presented council members with three proposals. They rejected two: Have the city buy the 3-acre property or help McGurn with the costs of sealing up the unfinished commercial building and painting murals on it.
Council members were cool to another proposal: Loan McGurn up to $1.45 million over two years to finish the shell.
But member Rob Marlowe said he was interested in part of that proposal calling for the city to use its commercial grant program to help potential Main Street Landing tenants with interior buildout costs.
"It's that option or bulldoze it," said Marlowe. "It just cannot be allowed to stand the way it is now."
Main Street Landing, a planned upscale residential and retail project at the gateway to downtown, stalled in the summer of 2006 amid escalating construction prices and the city's rejection of a new plan to help with the costs.
The unfinished construction site has been a huge source of contention among residents and downtown business owners since the summer of 2006, and last December the city attorney drafted a lawsuit against the developers, asking for permission to demolish the structure.
Council member Marilynn deChant said Tuesday she was all for McGurn's finishing his project, but she didn't want the city to pay for any of it. "I'm still concerned about putting citizens' tax money in jeopardy," she said.
Council member Judy deBella Thomas suggested that McGurn sell the project to another developer or look into finding federal money to help finish it through the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
For his part, McGurn did not elaborate on the three options he submitted to City Hall on Friday. In his opening presentation, he laid out a case — with a PowerPoint presentation of e-mails, memos and financial records — that showed he was moving ahead with a plan to finish the exterior of the first commercial building, which would house 15 units.
He said this undercuts the city's argument in the draft lawsuit that the site had been abandoned. He showed bills from the architect and engineer working on plans for the shell project in 2008 as well as e-mails to City Manager Tom O'Neill in late October that indicated things were moving ahead.
He said he pitched a loan idea to O'Neill back then but never heard back from him. He bristled at any suggestion that he has not been transparent. Instead, he said the city was not being transparent when it began drafting a lawsuit unbeknownst to him.
"It was the city acting in secret, with no transparency," he said.
Council members did not address many of McGurn's comments. Mayor Scott McPherson said he was "disappointed" that McGurn spent his time talking about the past rather than the three proposals for moving forward.
"I sat through a near 30-minute dressing down of the city and council," he said. "I could go off on a 20-minute rebuttal."
He did not. He said he didn't think any of McGurn's options were workable but that he was glad to see something on paper. "Maybe this can be the genesis of something that can lead to a solution," he said.
In a followup e-mail to a reporter Wednesday, McPherson said: "The 'case' he was attempting to lay out was only partially about the efforts of (Main Street Landing) to keep the project moving. To everyone present, the primary objective was to lay 100 percent of the blame on the City that this project is not completed. I could have rebutted his presentation, but what would that accomplish at this point?"
In his e-mail, McPherson also said he wanted to talk at the next City Council meeting about holding a "pre-suit mediation" with Main Street Landing.
At the meeting Tuesday, Jeffrey Dollinger, McGurn's lawyer, said his client wanted to work with the city. "It's not a take-it-or-leave-it approach at all," he said. "Clearly, it's going to take a team effort."
The handful of residents who spoke up said they felt the city had waited long enough for action. Karen Traetow said the developer seemed only to be looking for a "bailout."
"The city of New Port Richey is not a developer," she said, "and it's not a bank."
Bob Langford, a former City Council member, said he didn't like the idea of being a financial partner with Main Street Landing.
"I wouldn't want to be in business with these folks," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.