SAFETY HARBOR — City commissioners have decided to walk away from an agreement to buy waterfront land from the owner of the struggling Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, accusing Olympia Development Group of not negotiating in good faith.
Monday night the commission voted 4-1, with Mayor Andy Steingold dissenting, to cancel the deal to buy 13 acres on Old Tampa Bay for $2.9 million.
While commissioners were drawn to the idea of acquiring green space on the water for public use, most said they couldn't justify spending a million dollars more for the land than a recent appraisal showed it is worth.
Some also were concerned about future costs to maintain and improve the property. And some still were rankled that the city's purchase of the land would have come with certain usage restrictions insisted upon by the spa, a historic landmark on Bayshore Boulevard at Main Street.
"Why are we being told what to do with our own land?" Commissioner Nancy Besore asked Monday. "Are we going to be the groundskeepers?"
The spa is selling the undeveloped land, located between the resort and the shoreline, as part of a debt restructuring plan overseen by a federal bankruptcy judge. The judge had already approved the sale of the land to the city.
A sale price of $3.3 million was originally discussed by the city and spa owners, but that was before a new survey of the property showed less dry upland than previously thought, lowering the calculation of value to $2.9 million, contingent on an appraisal.
The appraiser placed the value at $1.9 million.
After seeing that number, the city made a counter offer of $2.75 million but didn't even get a response, officials said Monday. There are no negotiations under way now.
Commissioner Joe Ayoub argued that the city should just walk away from the agreement, saying, "We have only one willing party in this deal, and that can lead to overpaying."
Ayoub suggested waiting until the spa is anxious to cooperate, and said, "I don't think this will be our last bite at the apple."
Only Steingold pushed for the city to consider paying $2.9 million to get the property. He said it would be easy to justify spending the money to get undeveloped waterfront land that could be turned into parkland for future generations.
"I don't think you can put a price on green space," he said.
In other action Monday night, commissioners unanimously named Community Development Director Matt McLachlan as interim city manager. City Manager Matt Spoor announced last week that he will leave his post Jan. 8 to take a job as director of management and budget for the city of St. Petersburg.
Commissioners also agreed that the city would conduct its own search for a permanent city manager rather than hiring a professional search firm, and would follow Spoor's recommendation to wait until after the Jan. 31 city election to begin interviewing candidates for the job.
Within the next few weeks, the city will place advertisements seeking applicants.
"There are people locally who are going to be interested," Spoor told commissioners. "Very qualified individuals, I might add."
Diane Steinle can be reached at (727) 445-4152 or firstname.lastname@example.org.