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New Port Richey City Council should use chance to hit reset on downtown development

New Port Richey's City Council gets a mulligan tonight: a chance at a do-over on a stymied redevelopment project. Sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, the council is scheduled to determine the fate of the partially built Main Street Landing, the first large-scale private-sector investment in the city's ongoing redevelopment that stalled two years ago amid escalating construction prices and council rejection of a special taxing district to help finance infrastructure costs.

Tonight, the council has two options. It can choose a cooperative effort to improve the aesthetics and potentially help lure new commerce downtown. Or it can pick an adversarial approach that will end in litigation and fail to advance the hoped-for cornerstone of a new downtown vibrancy.

This shouldn't be a difficult decision. Council members should set aside the tough talk about suing and instead weigh the three proposals suggested by developer Ken McGurn, or bring their own ideas.

McGurn told the city it could consider buying him out and controlling the project exclusively; partner with McGurn to allow artists to paint murals on the exterior walls to hide the dormant construction; or work with the developer to finish the building exterior (minus the upper-story condominiums) and work to entice businesses there in advance of the interior construction.

Painting murals hides the problem, but doesn't solve it; and the city can't realistically buy the property given its other multimillon-dollar downtown investments in the former First Baptist Church and Hacienda Hotel buildings that have yet to pay dividends. Completing the exterior construction makes the most sense.

Still, it will require a cooperative approach that the city has been slow to embrace. Some have suggested the city has done enough to help McGurn, but we disagree. The city's financial investment has been minimal. McGurn has invested millions of dollars with more to come if the exterior is completed. The city, so far, is on the hook for staff time and deferred permit fees. A promised $1.25 million city grant to McGurn — an enticement under the original development agreement to complete the project by this month, is off the table. It also is important to remember the developer has paid his bills. There are no unpaid subcontractors or lien-holders lined up at the courthouse to complicate matters, and McGurn refunded deposits to customers.

Included in McGurn's proposal is the idea of the CRA lending the project $1.45 million over two years to complete the exterior. If the loan isn't repaid within five years, the city would own the property, effectively getting the land and building into which $8.5 million has been invested. Main Street Landing also would provide a partial match of incentives offered to businesses locating in the commercial building. If the city offered a $10,000 package, for instance, Main Street Landing would add 50 percent more to bring the value to $15,000.

A past council, of which four members are no longer in office, fumbled its dealing with Main Street Landing in 2006 when it balked at the community development district to help underwrite the infrastructure costs. McGurn sought the assistance because construction prices ballooned from a projected $17 million in 2004 to $33 million two years later. The end result of that 2006 vote has been the stalled redevelopment at the gateway to the city's downtown.

The current council has a chance this evening to get the project rolling again. A renewed partnership with McGurn would create jobs and provide an eye-pleasing commercial site with the ancillary benefit of the improved aesthetics boosting the city's economic development potential. It would be a mistake to pass up this opportunity to improve downtown New Port Richey.

New Port Richey City Council should use chance to hit reset on downtown development 03/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 5:39pm]
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