SAFETY HARBOR — Safety Harbor commissioners grappled Monday with how to pay for a $6.3 million plan for pedestrian trails, a boardwalk, a canoe launch and other assets at the city's newly acquired waterfront park.
Even if the city wins grants and uses revenue from Penny for Pinellas — a one-cent sales tax designated for capital improvements — officials will have to find millions in additional cash.
The options? Raise taxes, take loans or use reserves.
After a 30-minute debate, commissioners moved cautiously, giving the city staff the green light to proceed with the permit and design phase of the project on the 13-acre stretch between the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa and Old Tampa Bay. The price tag on that step is an estimated $137,000, already planned in the city budget.
"I'm excited about the park. I'm pleased with the community input we received and I think the plan is beautiful," said Commissioner Nina Bandoni. "But I'm also fiscally conservative with regard to the reserve accounts."
Commissioners asked the city staff to see what it would take to allow the public to use the space in the meantime. It is now fenced off and needs safety improvements.
Commissioners Bandoni, Nancy Besore and Cliff Merz said they want the city to move slowly on the project, which, even in the best of circumstances, could take years or even decades to complete.
Mayor Joseph Ayoub and Commissioner Richard Blake, who said they want residents to access the property they've already paid for, prefer for the city to move more quickly.
Even if the city is aggressive, residents will have a long wait before their ideas come to fruition, Ayoub argued, reminding commissioners that residents spent six months giving ideas for the park. Safety Harbor paid $2.75 million for the land in early 2012.
"We need to keep in mind we did purchase this property well over a year ago, and we sold it to the community with the idea we would turn it into a park for everybody to enjoy," Ayoub said. "Taxpayers paid for this property, so I don't want to be too slow."
Ayoub again asked commissioners to consider selling the 10-acre parcel behind Harborside Christian Church known as the Messenger property, saying the proceeds could help fund the waterfront park and other projects. Commissioners quickly shot down the idea, citing concerns about the environment and about selling when property values are down.
Safety Harbor bought the Messenger property in 1999 with the intention of converting it to ball fields. But the land lacked public access, and the idea was eventually abandoned.
"The reasons for purchasing the property don't hold water today. As far as the original intent, the value is gone," Ayoub said. "If we could at least explore our options . . ."
"I'll go out there and get a tour, but I'm not going to be interested in exploring options," Besore shot back. "Your options scare me."
Rather than sell the property or do anything rash, commissioners argued, the city should see how much it can get in grants for development of its bayfront park. Staff is already applying for two $200,000 grants, one that would help fund a boardwalk.
Which grants the city gets, if any, could be a key factor in how soon the city rolls out the project's three phases.
Among other things, the first phase includes a parking lot, multiuse and pedestrian trails and an observation tower. Phase 2 includes amphitheater seating, a canoe/kayak launch and a children's splash pad. And Phase 3 includes space for a building and a plaza at the end of Veterans Memorial Lane.
City Manager Matt Spoor said commissioners will likely make key decisions about financing and a timetable during summer budget workshops, and construction probably won't begin until after October. In the meantime, Spoor will work on opening the land to the public, which comes with its own set of issues.
"I have to get more information about cost. There's no current money for operation and maintenance," he said, adding that the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa now maintains the property. "That's what we have to discuss with the spa, to see if they will continue to maintain it if we open it up to the public or if that's something we're going to have to maintain."
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