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Special tax district proposed to revive New Port Richey project

NEW PORT RICHEY — In some ways, City Hall on Tuesday night felt a little like City Hall, circa June 2006.

Just as he did two and a half years ago, former Mayor Peter Altman came forward with a conceptual plan — one that involves the creation of a special district receiving property tax money — to revive construction at Main Street Landing.

Last time around, council members rejected the concept in a 3-2 vote. This time, though, a new council signaled it could be interested — while also saying it is tired of waiting for action.

Sitting as directors of the Community Redevelopment Agency, council members voted 5-0 to put off until March a decision on whether to sue Main Street Landing developers Ken and Linda McGurn.

That delay, council members said, gives the developers and the city time to work out a plan and time line to at least finish what has already been started.

City Attorney Tom Morrison had prepared a draft lawsuit late last year, asking a court to force the McGurns to "abate the nuisance" of the riverfront project, which has sat partially finished at the gateway to the downtown since the summer of 2006. The draft complaint asks that the McGurns be ordered to demolish the unfinished buildings and return the site to a safe grade.

Main Street Landing, a Mediterranean-themed project with 55 residential units and 20,000 square feet of retail space, was supposed to be the crown jewel of the city's downtown redevelopment efforts. Then the price tag soared from $17-million in 2004 to $33-million in 2006. Developers shut down construction not long after the June 2006 vote rejecting the special district.

At least for now, reviving the project rests on the shoulders of Altman, who originated the Main Street Landing project and recruited the McGurns to build it.

Though short on details, Altman's preliminary proposal calls for Main Street Landing to be part of a community development district. The district would sell a tax-exempt bond of about $2-million, mortgaged against the property, which has nearly $7-million worth of infrastructure investments already, he said.

The idea would be to free up the McGurns' cash to finish the facade of the building, Altman said. A share of future property tax revenues generated by the project would be pledged to paying off the bond. If the project never materializes, he said, the McGurns would be liable —and could lose their property to the bond investors.

Altman promised to crunch the numbers and give the city a beefed-up version of the proposal. Given the sour real estate market, he would also turn any completed condos into vacation rentals.

"I fully expect this to be a successful exercise," he told the Times Wednesday.

Calling it quits?

But council members on Tuesday were already questioning the mechanics of such a deal, particularly given the faltering bond market. City residents who spoke up at the meeting seemed to agree.

"I think the trust has been used up," said Bob Langford, a former deputy mayor. "To put more money into this project, to this development team is a poor idea.

"When do you call it over? I think it should be now."

Wendy Brenner, a former mayor, pointed out, however, that the project could sit just as it is now while the two sides hash out a long legal battle for years.

"I would just urge you to be cautious because we really need to make a project work downtown," she told the council. "I don't think (Ken McGurn is) going to roll over and play dead while we're in court, because he's got a lot of money invested."

Ken McGurn said in an interview Wednesday that he gives Altman credit for at least trying to come up with a plan to move forward.

"Peter is the only guy coming up with a different, creative idea," he said.

Opening the door

McGurn acknowledged, too, that his absence from Tuesday's meeting was due in part to his being upset at the city for drafting a lawsuit, which he said was unwarranted and ignored his recent investment, which includes hiring architects and engineers to come up with a plan to do the facade.

He blames city officials for not telling him what they wanted him to do and says he never knew they wanted him to demolish the project.

"Threatening lawsuits just gets people upset when they were led to believe they were working on the same goal," he said.

City officials say they've tried, in numerous meetings with McGurn over the years, to get him to come up with concrete plans to move the project forward.

City Manager Tom O'Neill said Wednesday the onus of coming up with a plan is on McGurn, not the city.

"Is that our place? I thought he was the developer," O'Neill told the Times. "We're not building the project. We finish our projects."

Council members Bob Consalvo, Rob Marlowe and Judy Debella Thomas were initially the only ones voting Tuesday for more negotiation time before filing a lawsuit. Mayor Scott McPherson and council member Marilynn deChant said they saw no reason to wait because the city had reached out to the McGurns but to no avail. (Of the council, deChant is the only remaining member from the 2006 council that rejected the special district idea.)

But the two reluctantly decided to go with their colleagues in a show of solidarity and, they say, of compromise.

"This isn't a sucker punch. Notice has been given," said McPherson. But "for (public relations) reasons, we can once again say, 'Mr. McGurn, the door is open.' "

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Special tax district proposed to revive New Port Richey project 01/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 8:58pm]
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