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Wal-Mart's land near Anclote River is on county's wish list, again

TARPON SPRINGS — Just a month ago, Wal-Mart officials stressed they had no plans to sell the 74-acre site of their stalled development on the Anclote River.

Suddenly, it's not out of the realm of possibilities.

"We'll take into consideration if the county wants to propose something,'' Wal-Mart spokeswoman Quenta Vettel said Thursday. "Nothing has changed in our minds from what we said in the beginning, but we would certainly talk to them or the city should they want to bring something forward."

The County Commission agreed Tuesday to send a letter to the big box retailer expressing interest in the site, which is bordered by the river on the north and a busy stretch of U.S. 19 on the east.

County Commissioner Susan Latvala acknowledged it would be difficult to find money for the property, valued at $6.6-million on county tax rolls.

"That said, this piece of property is very important to Pinellas County,'' Latvala said. "It's been on our list for a long time. It needs to be preserved."

The county was negotiating a purchase with a previous owner in 2001, when then-Mayor Frank DiDonato sent a letter asking county officials to reconsider, citing the added value the developed property would bring to the city and county tax base.

At the time, Wal-Mart wasn't in the picture, DiDonato said this week. A proposed mixed-use retail and residential project that never came to fruition could have brought needed tax revenue and didn't stir the same passions as the big-box store.

DiDonato said he has mixed feelings about the property today.

"There is no question it would make a beautiful park, but I think with finances and taxes being lowered as much as they're being lowered … the city needs to really look at what's going to be for the long-term good of the people of Tarpon Springs," he said.

If Wal-Mart officials agree to sell, "we'll try to cobble some money together," Latvala said. The money could come from part of the next round of Penny for Pinellas funds set aside to buy beach access, properties that have been hard to find in a nearly built-out county.

Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris said she's not sure how much the city could squeeze out of its constricted budget to contribute.

"These are hard economic times," she said.

The company announced in late November that it planned to postpone the project, which included a 203,000-square-foot supercenter, garden center, bus transfer station, nature trail and kayak launch.

Company officials said then the decision was spurred partly by the weak economy.

But Wal-Mart had hit a major setback in October when the City Commission determined the project's certificate of concurrency had expired. The move meant Wal-Mart had to submit a new site plan or take the matter to court.

The project was also stymied repeatedly by ardent opponents who uncovered permitting errors and ultimately brought the issue of impact management to the forefront of the four-year debate.

"That's great," said one of those activists, Chris Hrabovsky. "I know they had offered to buy it before and it's now between Wal-Mart and the county, and the city should only encourage this. ... The people have spoken."

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

Wal-Mart's land near Anclote River is on county's wish list, again 12/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 12:45pm]
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