Saturday, February 17, 2018
Editorials

New Port Richey should rebuke Advanced Research Institute for its bad behavior

Florida's targeted industries — the companies intended to bring quality job growth to the state — include life sciences, information technology, aviation and professional/financial services. Besides creating new jobs and paying above-average wages, there should be another key attribute: Good corporate neighbor.

It is a glaring shortcoming in Advanced Research Institute's move from Trinity to New Port Richey. The company, which conducts clinical drug trials, is operating improperly after pledging to seek an appropriate zoning change to comply with city land-use rules. Instead, Advanced Research Institute (ARI) charged ahead with its operations while its president blamed the city staff for not trying harder to accommodate a so-called target industry.

That the company includes a City Council member, Judy DeBella Thomas, on its payroll as marketing director, is an awkward entanglement that neither the firm nor DeBella Thomas was astute enough to avoid. Essentially DeBella Thomas' boss, ARI CEO Susan Randall, is bad-mouthing the city staff whose senior most member, City Manager John Schneiger, answers to DeBella Thomas and the rest of the Council. And DeBella Thomas simultaneously gets to market the services of a company that paid little heed to the government land use rules over which she has authority.

By all accounts, a small, local company founded a dozen years ago doing medical-related research would be a significant upgrade over the previous occupants of 6716 Congress St. — the Harbinger House, a nonprofit home for troubled boys that closed amid complaints including generating nearly a thousand calls for police service in two years.

But ARI has created problems of another kind. In March, the city halted renovation work at the site because the company failed to obtain the necessary building permits. It also noted ARI planned to open a clinical laboratory in a residential neighborhood and told the company to apply to change the land's zoning to professional office use.

ARI countered the city should amend its comprehensive plan, paving the way for the medical research company to operate at the Congress Street property — once an adult retirement home, zoned for multi-family residential use. The city declined with Schneiger correctly saying New Port Richey shouldn't bend its rules to benefit a single entity.

It is an imperative point. The city shouldn't be giving preferential treatment to a company employing a council member, particularly now that it is again threatening to assess fines against the same company for thumbing its nose at City Hall.

ARI's excuse list is getting longer. The company's attorney blamed the illegal renovation work on a "miscommunication by the engineering firm'' hired to obtain the permits. Randall blames her landlord, the former operators of the Harbinger House, for stalling the rezoning application to the city. But the real wrath is aimed at City Hall.

"I don't see a single person in this city coming forth to help us,'' Randall told the Times.

Randall says the patients are ARI's top priority. Certainly, the company's actions and statements indicate accepting responsibility for ignoring local government zoning rules isn't a prime concern.

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