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New Port Richey stews over unfinished downtown lot

New Port Richey is trying a new tactic to spur downtown redevelopment: sue. It is a poorly timed attempt to bully a private developer into starting work again or abandoning entirely a 3-acre lot along the Pithlachascotee River that is now decorated with a slab, partial walls of cinder block and construction fencing.

This evening, the New Port Richey Council, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, will be asked to start the clock on filing a lawsuit against Ken McGurn of Gainesville, the developer of Main Street Landing at the gateway to the city's downtown.

McGurn's contract with the city calls for him to receive $1.25-million if his residential/retail project is completed by March 2009. Obviously, that deadline will not be met and city officials say conversations with McGurn have been unfruitful. The proposed lawsuit alleges McGurn violated the terms of his agreement with the city by not obtaining adequate financing and by not meeting a deadline that is still months away.

The planned suit is indicative of a city frustrated by stalled redevelopment and the shell of a building blighting its downtown landscape. Still, this is premature. We're not sure what the city will accomplish besides a better-looking empty lot.

The construction site has been dormant since the summer of 2006 after a past council (of which four members are no longer in office) rejected the idea of a special taxing district to help the financially troubled project pay for infrastructure. McGurn sought the so-called Community Development District to help underwrite escalating construction costs, which ballooned from a projected $17-million in 2004 to $33-million by 2006.

The city strategy now is to void the 2004 development agreement to either stimulate activity there or to demolish the building shell and clear the lot. Ridding the city of the downtown eyesore is appealing aesthetically, but damaging in other ways.

It will be the second time this public-private partnership has turned adversarial. In 2006, a council majority raised objections about the project's design, targeted customers and potential retail tenants, and questioned McGurn's sincerity before it rejected the proposed tax district.

For a city advocating redevelopment, it certainly sends an ill-advised message to private-sector investors that financial downturns will not be tolerated. Amid a recession unrivaled in severity in more than 25 years, exactly who does the council think is prepared to open new retailing outlets or move into high-priced condominiums if the project moves forward at this time?

McGurn, who has said he invested more than $6-million of his own money, will still own and control development on the southeast corner of Main Street and the river even if the city's legal ploy is carried to fruition. He, not the city, is in the driver's seat and, like it or not, he has yet to miss the completion deadline. McGurn, incidentally, just notified the city he, too, wanted out of the agreement, but plans to complete the project, not demolish it.

If the city wants to recall its $1.25-million incentive next spring, invest it elsewhere (Railroad Square or Hacienda) and renegotiate terms with McGurn or encourage him to sell the property, so be it. That timeline is more logical.

Impatience now simply diminishes the potential for a long-term reward for the city's redevelopment.

New Port Richey stews over unfinished downtown lot 12/08/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2008 2:54pm]
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