LARGO — Only two Largo commissioners resisted when Walmart sought a brownfield designation for land it plans to develop on the old Crossroads Mall property, even though there is no known contamination on the land and the designation would qualify the giant retailer for a host of tax credits and special incentives.
Brownfield designations originally were intended to encourage cleanup and development of contaminated properties by offering incentives and some regulatory relief to developers.
However, Florida law allows developers to apply for the incentives even if no contamination has been found — if there is merely a perception the property might be polluted. That's the route Walmart is taking in Largo to access the incentive program.
Walmart plans to build a supercenter on the sprawling property at the southeast corner of U.S. 19 and Roosevelt Boulevard. It was formerly the site of the Crossroads Mall and, before that, the Bay Area Outlet Mall.
At a recent Largo City Commission meeting, a Walmart representative acknowledged that the company knows of no contamination on the property. But gas stations have operated on two parcels adjacent to the Walmart site and they are known to be polluted with petroleum substances, he said. That could lead to a perception, Walmart argued, that the pollution could spread onto the supercenter property.
Getting the property designated as a brownfield would give Walmart several advantages, including tax incentives, loan guarantees, expedited review of technical documents, sales tax credits, environmental assistance, and state job creation tax credits of up to $2,500 per new job.
Walmart plans to create 150 new full-time equivalent jobs with an average salary of only $20,000 annually — about $21,000 under Pinellas County's average wage. Two commissioners, Michael Smith and Robert Murray, opposed providing Walmart access to job tax credits.
"I think the jobs should be at a higher value to receive a tax credit," Murray said.
Smith also opposed giving Walmart the brownfield designation, saying the deal "smelled."
The other five commissioners had no problem with either request, noting that the state would make the final decision on whether Walmart would be approved for the program. Smith scoffed at that, saying the Walmart request was "basically a shoo-in."
Last year, the St. Petersburg City Council approved a controversial request from Walmart for job creation tax credits for a Sam's Club project. In that case, Walmart said it had discovered pollution from a nearby dry cleaner on its property at 34th Street and 17th Avenue N.
However, St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse said he thought the contamination claim was a ruse. He noted that Walmart had earlier called the level of dry cleaning solvent found in the soil minor. He and council member Steve Kornell voted against recommending Walmart for the credits.
During the Largo commission meeting, Community Development director Carol Stricklin said the city staff has realized that the brownfield designation "is a powerful tool" to encourage development. Commissioners gave her permission to keep bringing brownfield requests to them for consideration.
Rather than handing out brownfield designations to just anyone, Stricklin said Largo will apply certain criteria to the requests, including whether they are for key properties and whether awarding the designation would be good strategy for the city.
Being designated as a brownfield, and therefore potentially contaminated, was once considered a negative. That connotation appears to be disappearing for commercial properties, but perhaps not for residential ones. According to city officials, the developer who plans to build apartments next to the new Walmart did not want to be included in the brownfield designation.
Diane Steinle can be reached at (727) 445-4152 or firstname.lastname@example.org.