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New Port Richey: Westward expansion thwarted for Hacienda Hotel

The Sims Park playground, built in 1990, may soon be gone.

Times files (2001)

The Sims Park playground, built in 1990, may soon be gone.

NEW PORT RICHEY — The plans for westward expansion of the Hacienda Hotel, seen as key to preserving and breathing new life into the historic landmark, have hit a brick wall.

City Council members were poised Tuesday night to approve terms with Community Development Partners, a Jacksonville firm that wants to refashion the Hacienda into a 93-room boutique hotel by expanding into a portion of Sims Park. But the deal was halted after council members learned of two separate legal constraints requiring the park land remain park land.

"Disappointed. That's the best way to describe it," a deflated City Manager John Schneiger said after the meeting. "We've put a lot of work into this."

The limitations on the land came to light during a title review of parcels west of the Hacienda.

A 1963 warranty deed from Reginald and Pauline Sims mandates several of the lots in question are to be "used for public park purposes only and to become an adjunct to and a part of Sims Park in the City of New Port Richey and for no other purpose."

The land also has a 1997 federal notice of limitation tag that states it was "acquired or developed" using federal grant assistance from the National Park Service. Without a written approval from the U.S. secretary of the interior, the land must be used for "public outdoor recreation uses," according to paperwork obtained by the city attorney's office.

It all adds to up significant and costly hurdles the city would need to clear in order to free the land of its constraints.

"Both of these limitations are substantial in nature," assistant city attorney Jim Lang told the council.

The legal snags make it unclear whether Community Development Partners will move forward with plans to revamp the Hacienda. Company vice president Andy Ham has previously said the project cannot be economically viable without an expansion of the 1920s building, which currently has 55 rooms.

The city bought the Hacienda nearly a decade ago, hoping to make it a cornerstone of the downtown redevelopment effort. Previous plans to turn the now-empty building into a lecture hall or a bed-and-breakfast have fallen apart.

Community Development has proposed an upscale hotel, spa and meeting space — all of which would require a larger building. The developer's most desired direction for expansion was west along Main Street, Ham told the Times after a City Council work session last week. Ham did not attend Tuesday's meeting.

When city officials learned the results of the title search just hours prior to Tuesday's meeting, they scrambled to look for an alternative. Schneiger pitched to Ham the idea of possibly building a portion of the hotel on the Gloria Swanson parking lot northeast of the Hacienda, on the other side of Bank Street.

That portion of the hotel would not connect to the existing historic structure and would likely have to be built higher than expected. A post office building adjacent to the parking lot would also need to be razed for hotel parking, Schneiger said.

It's a last ditch effort to keep Community Development on board. Reached Wednesday, Ham said the company is exploring the idea with the hope of giving the city a decision by the end of the week.

Council members made no comment on the matter during the meeting, saying they wanted to hear from the developer first. But after the meeting Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe said he is glad an exhaustive title search was done.

"I was disappointed, but not totally surprised," he said. "I just had that bad feeling, so I really wanted it done before Community Development Partners spent any more dollars on this."

Marlowe said he believes the best option for the Hacienda is for it to be a hotel, and hopes a plan can still be worked out with Community Development. But it is not the only option, he said.

If the hotel plan falls through, he said, the council should be begin looking at other options, such as turning the Hacienda into a restaurant or an eco-tourism center. But most essential is to come up with a plan quickly that will start the process of stabilizing the deteriorating building, as it would be "criminal" to see it bulldozed, Marlowe said.

What about the playground?

A westward expansion of the Hacienda Hotel would've meant razing the 12,000-square-foot wooden playground at Sims Park. But the playground's days are numbered either way. City officials have said the playground, built in 1990 through a massive community effort, is deteriorating and needs to be replaced. "It's really way outlived its life expectancy," said Elaine Smith, the city's parks and recreation director. The city is seeking a $200,000 U.S. Department of the Interior Land and Water Conservation Fund grant, which the city would match, to make improvements at Sims Park. Officials said the bulk of the funds would go toward replacing the playground, either on the existing site or elsewhere in Sims Park. If the city wins the grant, it would host public meetings to gather residents' ideas for park improvements, with the goal of beginning construction in the summer of 2013, Smith said.

New Port Richey: Westward expansion thwarted for Hacienda Hotel 03/07/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 7:53pm]
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