Walmart's unexpected announcement Friday that it has put its controversial Tarpon Springs supercenter project on hold opens the door to a great opportunity. Pinellas County officials should run, not walk, to a meeting with Walmart and make a substantial offer to buy the retailer's Tarpon Springs property for parkland.
At the same time, the activists who have worked so successfully to prevent development of the property should work just as hard now to build community enthusiasm for turning it into a park.
Since Walmart acquired rights to the land some four years ago, this is the first time the community has seen a fissure in the retailer's determination to build a store on the property as soon as possible. That, combined with falling property values, makes this the right time for Pinellas to bid on the property, which never was an appropriate site for a supercenter anyway. Anyone who has walked the property, or even viewed an aerial photograph of it, understands that its highest and best use is as a passive waterfront park.
The 74-acre property is on the east side of U.S. 19 along the south bank of the Anclote River, which is a protected Florida waterway. While the center of the parcel is an old sand pit and would need to be restored, the remainder of the property is tree-covered and dotted with wetlands. The land also has a unique topographic feature: a bluff overlooking the river. Wildlife on the property now includes nesting bald eagles.
Pinellas County was interested in buying the property for a park even before it was purchased by Walmart, but county officials were put off by Tarpon Springs officials, who said the land was designated for commercial development that would bring the city new tax revenue. Those individuals no longer control city government, and the environmental awareness of current city officials and community residents has grown in the years since. Now, even those who support construction of the Walmart will admit they wish there was a more appropriate site for it.
Walmart spokeswoman Quenta Vettel said Friday that the company plans to keep the land for now and will "monitor the environment in Tarpon Springs over the next few years and determine what we'll do with the site." Mayor Beverley Billiris told the St. Petersburg Times on Friday that Walmart declined her suggestion that the company negotiate with the city or the county to sell the property.
However, Billiris has consistently voted in favor of the Walmart project, and Tarpon Springs can't afford to buy the property. Walmart should be approached by county officials, with enthusiastic backing by the city government, of course.
As for Walmart's statement that it plans to hold on to the land, why would it want to? Its attempt to develop this land has been an ordeal from the beginning. The public fought it. A core group of smart, committed anti-Walmart activists stymied the company's efforts at every turn. Lawsuits were filed, and permits were challenged. Site plans had to be redrawn. The makeup of the City Commission changed, and now a majority opposes the supercenter project. Bald eagles moved onto the site. The national and local economies soured, and credit dried up.
The economy may improve in a few years, but Pinellas residents' interest in preserving beautiful land and protecting sensitive waterways is only going to grow as the county gets more crowded. If Walmart is waiting around for people to change their minds about a supercenter on the Anclote River, that may be a long wait.
Instead, Walmart could help repair its tattered image in the community by offering the land at a fair price to Pinellas County.