Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Opinion

New Port Richey vision begins on the ground floor

Most of us see a pity. Craig Carmichael sees potential.

"Can't you just see it?'' Carmichael, 47, says waving his arms.

Well, sure. Look past the plywood covering the broken windows that were never replaced, the unkempt landscaping, mildew, torn screen, the skeleton of the air conditioning unit, broken light fixtures, exterior cracks, nonworking elevator, dingy paint and all round dumpy appearance and this place could really be something.

The place is the abandoned Hacienda Hotel that has been sitting idle in downtown New Port Richey for roughly nine years now.

Immediately to the west is the Sims Park playground that has fallen into disrepair and is scheduled for a $400,000 makeover. Past that is a supposedly decorative overlook of the park and Pithlachascotee River that is named for golfing legend Gene Sarazen. Except it carries no explanation of Sarazen's greatness nor his ties to New Port Richey. Instead, it, too, is missing light fixtures and any sense of purpose other than, judging by the ground, a place to hang out, smoke cigarettes and discard the butts.

Enter Sims Park from the north and you are greeted by the moldy rear of the amphitheater. Go toward Circle Boulevard and there sits the vacant, former office of the U.S. Postal Service. Nearby is the empty lot that used to be the home of First Baptist Church but now is the resting place for litter and a sign asking for housing developers to please come invest in the property.

"The city,'' says Carmichael, "is the biggest owner of blighted property in New Port Richey.''

Carmichael recently led me on a golf cart tour of what should be the city's most recognizable assets to share his vision for downtown. He's not running for office and he's not in it to make money. His business, Suburban Feed, is in Hudson. But he lives just north of the park and believes the city has failed to tap its potential. He's dealt with the city as the organizer of the annual Christmas boat parade on the Cotee River and he's shared his ideas with the City Council. Here's what he sees:

The Gene Sarazen overlook should be turned over to artists for weekly exhibits and sales, or to animal agencies to show off pets for adoptions.

The city-owned West Pasco Chamber of Commerce building should be a deli, kayak rental business or a bait and tackle shop catering to the fishermen launching from the boat ramp next door.

The playground should be moved to the northern edge of Sims Park where it would abut an existing parking lot. The park's split rail fence should be replaced by the same nautical-themed rope-and-stump look that is used further north on Grand Boulevard. The back of the amphitheater should be shielded with decorative fencing and vegetation.

The vacant church property should be a temporary dog park until the city can entice private investment there and the former post office is big enough to house the Chamber of Commerce and business incubation activities.

Along the river, he sees city-owned boat docks that would encourage overnight stays. And a commercial venture, like the Port Richey-based Miss Daisy, docking there permanently to offer seven-days-a-week excursions along the waterfront.

Still, his hand-waving enthusiasm is centered on the Hacienda. The city recently cut ties with its private-sector partner after a stymied six-year effort to build a hotel there. Carmichael, whose pitch is now echoed by Vice Mayor Rob Marlowe, sees the first floor as home to an upscale steakhouse since a dining room and commercial kitchen already exist. He sees a coffee shop there, too. Consider it a miniature version of the Vinoy in St. Petersburg. There should be an ice cream store. Maybe a livery. Office pace for the boat excursions. The kayak-rental business could go there if the chamber building is used for another purpose.

And after the first floor generates rental income for the city, the job of rehabilitating the upstairs guest rooms becomes more manageable. Forget 50 rooms. Knock down some walls and offer 25 suites, instead.

Of course, it's easy to envision when there are no price tags attached. The docks, the Hacienda repairs, even installing fencing for a dog park all come with a cost. Meanwhile, the city is upside down on the loans used to buy the Hacienda, the Baptist Church site and other redevelopment projects over the past decade. At least the first investment is cheap. It's sweat only. A community clean-up of the Hacienda property is scheduled for Jan. 12.

Aesthetics are just the start in Carmichael's view. New Port Richey is making mortgage payments on the Hacienda anyway while failing to budget anything for upkeep. The city, he says, can't afford not to get business tenants in there on the ground floor to begin rebuilding downtown commerce.

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