TARPON SPRINGS — In the heart of the downtown historic district, right on the city's main drag, there's a property that has been vacant for four years. A gaping hole in a block of businesses, it's hidden behind a decorative fence adorned with a mural.
The lot at 144 E Tarpon Ave. once housed a historic building constructed in 1906, but it fell into disrepair. The city demolished it in 2008, fearful that the dilapidated, top-heavy structure could tumble onto passers-by. The city put a lien on the property for the demolition costs, then foreclosed on it.
Now Tarpon officials have decided to sell the city-owned lot to a developer — possibly at a bargain price — in an effort to entice someone to put a nice new building in that spot that could help revitalize the downtown.
The City Commission is planning to seek proposals from potential buyers.
"This is an empty spot in the center of our downtown," Vice Mayor Chris Alahouzos said at a recent commission meeting. "It needs to be filled."
"This property has been kind of a sore subject in the community," added Commissioner Susan Slattery. "It was heartbreaking to see that building come down. I can't tell you how disturbing it was to so many people in the community."
City officials plan to seek bids from developers, then pick some finalists, then have commissioners evaluate the competing proposals. The entire process could take about six months, said Tarpon's new economic development manager, Karen Lemmons.
The city's goal is to enhance the mix of downtown businesses, add to the property tax base, and possibly create a catalyst for new investment downtown — perhaps even sparking the renovation of some privately owned downtown buildings.
"Most of us, if not all of us, have been looking forward to something happening at this location," said Mayor David Archie.
Early settler's store
The 16-by-50-foot lot, which includes the addresses of 144 and 138 E Tarpon Ave., is in a prime spot just west of Safford Avenue and the Pinellas Trail.
The two-story building that used to be there was built in 1906 by one of the city's first settlers, Granville E. Noblit Sr., who ran a hardware store.
Furniture dealer Frank Forbes bought it in the early 1980s, lived there and ran a used furniture store.
By the time the 3,200-square-foot building was condemned, the floors had deteriorated, the walls were partially collapsed and rainwater poured through holes in the ceiling. Also, renovations had destroyed most of the building's original facade, reducing its historical significance.
The city billed the property owner $108,000 for the demolition, but got no payment. City officials later foreclosed on the property.
Tarpon commissioners decided to seek developers' proposals for the site instead of just marketing the property and selling it outright. They want some control over what gets built there — and how quickly it gets built.
Commissioners also signaled that they're willing to part with the property at a bargain price, if a developer comes up with an attractive proposal for the site.
Commissioner Townsend Tarapani said: "I think with this particular piece, it's so vital to the downtown and the redevelopment of the downtown, that the actual land value of the property is so far outweighed by the aesthetic value of actually having a building, center-block, that's two-story with four units downstairs and some apartments upstairs."
However, a couple of observers had different ideas about the vacant lot.
Former commission candidate Tim Keffalas suggested putting a public park there instead of a building.
And former commissioner Peter Dalacos didn't want current officials to be too eager to give the property away. "Don't feel desperate to grab something that you think you have to," he told them.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.