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Tarpon Springs voters to decide sale of nursing home property for assisted living

TARPON SPRINGS — The city may have a buyer for its most valuable property that's for sale.

Commissioners agreed last week to accept $813,000 for 3.46 acres at 501 S Walton Ave., site of a former nursing home now so dilapidated that independent horror films have used it as a set and police SWAT teams have knocked holes in the walls during training exercises.

Qualified Property Management, owned by Harry Burnard of New Port Richey, wants to restore and convert the building, which has been abandoned for nine years, into an assisted living facility. The deal is pending voter approval.

"We're talking about redesigning the front entrance area, eliminating all the floors, redoing them, retexturing and repainting the walls, replacing all the ceiling tiles," said Burnard, responding to commissioner concerns that he plans to renovate the building rather than demolish it and start over. "You're effectively walking into a brand-new facility, outside and inside."

The commissioners' decision to work with Burnard comes a year after he expressed interest in the property. His company runs other assisted living facilities, including Sunset Harbor in Tarpon Springs and A Safe Haven in Seminole.

After a nationwide search, the city rejected the one other bid it received for the property because of a technical mistake on the application.

The assisted living facility would add 60 to 100 jobs and more than 100 beds for the city's aging population, said economic development manager Karen Lemmons, quoting estimates that the property could also add $12,000 in city tax revenue.

Tarpon Springs has maintained the property since 2004, when the last tenant moved out and broke the lease, leading to a tangle of litigation.

The sale would be a nice boost for a property that in recent years has been little more than an eyesore and a drain, Lemmons said.

"It's a win for the city," she said. "It's fair market value, and it fills a need that's been documented."

Commissioners voted 4-1 to accept the deal but not before a lengthy discussion about whether it offers the best use for a property some referred to as "the big enchilada."

Only Commissioner Jeff Larsen voted no.

"I like the proposal, but I think it's possible we could do even better," Larsen said. "I want to make sure we get this right."

Larsen also questioned whether the city should have rebuffed the proposal from Housing Trust Group and Earth First Development Corp., which offered $900,000 to buy the property and build an affordable housing complex with 76 units.

The company submitted the wrong kind of check with its application. The city would have to start the bid process over to consider the proposal.

Christopher Shear, vice president of development for Housing Trust Group, apologized for what he called an oversight and asked city leaders to give him another chance but got nowhere.

"It's a bit disappointing we didn't have the opportunity to have this bid evaluated," he said. "Our bid included a higher purchase price, more construction jobs, and an overall higher benefit to the community."

Ultimately, a voter referendum will determine whether the city can sell to Burnard, but it's unclear when that will happen.

Burnard previously agreed to pay $30,000 for a special election in November. But he said he might want to avoid that cost by waiting until local elections in March. The problem, he said, is he wants to get moving on the project as soon as possible.

Also at issue is whether the city should require a development agreement, which would bind the company to its promise to complete construction in two years, among other things.

Burnard assured commissioners he's already got the money in his pocket and is ready to build. He repeatedly told them he's someone to be trusted, not a "charlatan."

"You have to make a decision based on the evidence in front of you," Burnard said. "We're representing something wonderful for the city, we really are."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155.

Tarpon Springs voters to decide sale of nursing home property for assisted living 08/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 9, 2013 4:45pm]
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