CLEARWATER — Tack on at least another $500,000 to the BeachWalk revitalization project, thanks to a lawsuit the city is expected to settle with a convenience store whose owners say new sidewalks cut off customer access and ruined their business.
The City Council on Thursday is expected to sign off on an agreement to pay the owners of the Anchor Mini-Mart $400,000 for damages, compensation and legal fees, and then agree to spend up to another $100,000 fixing the drainage problems and modifying the parking lot, which was changed when sidewalks along Coronado Drive were installed.
And another settlement on the horizon could be "just as big,'' one attorney says.
The city is still looking at a suit from the 33-room Hi Seas Motel, which filed similar claims against Clearwater last year.
Both businesses say the city built raised-curb sidewalks on either side of the half-mile-long Coronado Drive in mid February 2007 that block access to parking next to the businesses. Anchor Mini-Mart says it lost all of its six spaces. Hi Seas, on S Gulfview Boulevard, says it lost eight of its 33 spaces on Coronado.
In addition, Anchor's initial suit filed last June says the construction ruined drainage patterns, so stormwater pooled in front of the store.
To stave off some of the costs, said Assistant City Attorney Richard Hull, the city is expected to file a third party complaint against the Tampa firm Post, Buckley, Schuh & Jernigan, which designed and oversaw the construction along Coronado.
The city's hope is that the firm will incur some of the costs for a potential settlement with Hi Seas. Hull says the case will be handled in-house, so legal costs shouldn't exceed $500.
He says that any settlement with the motel will be a "fraction" of the cost of the Anchor case.
However, Clearwater attorney James Helinger, who is representing both businesses, said he expects it to exceed $400,000.
"I don't know what they were thinking when they did that project, but obviously somebody wasn't thinking, maybe nobody was thinking," Helinger said. "What's crazier is that you tell them it's stupid and to fix it and they say: 'Naw, I don't think so, go ahead and sue us.' "
He said he didn't know when or if the Hi Seas would go to mediation, but the city "can stop the bleeding as soon as they want to."
Already, the BeachWalk project, which included modifications to Coronado Drive such as new trees and sidewalks, as well as the winding brick promenades along the sand, has cost at least $30.4-million. Roughly $10-million of that was financed by developers and federal aid.
Council members have expressed dismay about the settlement but think it would be cheaper than going to court.
"We believe our engineer dropped the ball," Mayor Frank Hibbard said.
Councilman Paul Gibson, who called the mistake "very irritating," added that "the city has an obligation to do the right thing and we will, and the contractors who designed and built BeachWalk also have an obligation not to create these types of problems."
Work to fix the curb outside the minimart is expected to start within six months. The money will come from the general fund.
In the meantime, owners of the 40-year-old store say the victory is bittersweet as it comes amidst the death of a family member, Chris Tracey, who died from cancer in early June.
But the money, owners say, will help them get back on their feet.
"Basically we've been out of business for a year and a half," Marlyn Tracey said.
She said that although the city last year tried to fix the problem by flattening some sidewalks and creating a horseshoe that goes around a raised sidewalk and a tree, the business lost six of their deliveries — about half.
Since then, owners have made trips to the grocery store on their own, buying bread, meat and chips, since delivery trucks can't fit through the small driveway.
For the longest time, city officials contended that the city owned the right of way to the parking and they told businesses more than a year before the sidewalks were created that they were taking it back.
In the end, though, city leaders conceded that the litigation could cost more than a settlement. Especially if the city lost.