The city of Seminole has waited a long time for good news about the beleaguered, mostly empty Seminole Mall, the closest thing the city of 18,000 has to a downtown. Last week developers revealed publicly a plan to tear down the old mall and replace it with an outdoor "city center," with shops, restaurants and other amenities. But until more details are known about the "public-private partnership" that developers are seeking, its unclear whether this is a deal Seminole or Pinellas County needs.
At last week's Seminole City Council meeting, developers unveiled a conceptual design for redeveloping the 39-acre property at the intersection of Park Boulevard and 113th Street. An artist's rendering shows a main entrance on 113th Street, a large center plaza with a fountain, and retail outlets clustered around the perimeter. The plans also include a 1,262-seat movie theater and fitness center. Two experienced shopping center developers, North American Development Group, a Canadian firm with its U.S. headquarters in West Palm Beach, and Primerica Group One of Tampa, are partnering to develop the mall property. Seminole Mall LP, which operates out of North American Development's offices, purchased the mall in 2012.
Primerica Group One president Richard Trzcinski told the council the advent of easy online shopping has made it necessary for retail shopping centers to have attractors, such as movie theaters, skating rinks and concert facilities. And Seminole Mall clearly lacks that sort of appeal. The value of the property has declined steadily to around $16 million since peaking in 2008, according to the developers. The developers estimate their "Seminole City Center," if built, will triple the value to $48 million. There are other numbers the developers provide that sound great: $586,324 in additional annual property tax revenue, $6.4 million in annual sales tax revenue, 755 permanent jobs, 629 temporary construction-related jobs.
But the question remains: At what cost to taxpayers? The developers want the city to be a third partner in this private retail project. Trzcinski said they won't ask for any city money up front, but are interested in a "revenue-enhanced value grant," a type of incentive under which the owners of a completed project pay their full local property tax bill each year, but receive a refund of some or all of the increase in tax resulting from the rise in the property's value.
The developers would seek a similar deal with Pinellas County. And their list of other possible funding sources includes the Penny for Pinellas sales tax — a tax approved by Pinellas voters for public capital projects — as well as other county, state and federal incentives. These kinds of incentives are not typically awarded for shopping center projects. And retail/restaurant jobs are not the high-wage variety usually sought by economic development tax rebate programs.
Last week, the developers were vague about what incentives they want, in what amount, for how long and why. Those details presumably will emerge and should be shared with the public as the city staff and developer negotiate a development agreement. Only then will it be clear whether this is a plan worth pursuing.
City Manager Frank Edmunds, who has been aware of the developers' interest for nearly two years, has wisely hired outside experts to advise the city during the negotiations. This is the biggest project Seminole has ever reviewed, and the developers' plan to seek public partners means it is important for city officials to understand what they are giving — and what they are giving up — every step of the way.