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Tarpon Springs coffee shop proposal brewed up tempest

April seems to be the month for weirdness in Tarpon Springs city government. First, city commissioners upset with City Manager Ellen Posivach voted to start a search for a new city manager, but didn't fire Posivach or ask for her resignation. She still has the post, and City Hall is in limbo.

Then, a brouhaha erupted at last Tuesday's City Commission meeting after word leaked out that the city staff had sent out an advertisement seeking businesses to operate a coffee shop in the city's Depot Museum, but neglected to tell the museum officials or even the City Commission.

The coffee shop caper may be an even bigger bungle than the city manager mess.

It apparently began with a valid question: What methods, other than increasing taxes, could the city use to raise extra revenue to defray the cost of operating public facilities? Government budgets are stretched, and one way local governments raise extra revenue is by leasing out space in public facilities to concessionaires. Look at the number of coffee shops now being operated in public libraries. The local government not only gets lease payments, but in some cases a share of the profits.

So Tarpon Springs officials had talked about whether the city-owned Depot Museum on Tarpon Avenue at the Pinellas Trail might be a good place to lease space for a coffee shop. A so-called request for proposals was prepared and sent out.

The city staff skipped a few steps that logically should have been taken before the advertisement went out.

First, no one discussed the idea with the Tarpon Springs Area Historical Society, an influential group that operates the museum in conjunction with the city. Neither did anyone tell the museum curator, who is paid by the city, that the advertisement had gone out.

No one asked Historical Society board members if they liked or disliked the idea of having a privately operated coffee shop in the museum, if there was enough space for it, or if installing the necessary restaurant-grade equipment to operate a coffee shop would be detrimental to the historic structure.

Second, no one told the City Commission, which at the very least should have been consulted about the idea and the form of the request for proposals, if not asked to formally vote on it.

Third, the city staff apparently overlooked a legal matter that might prevent establishment of a coffee shop in the building. The depot property was donated to the city by the state Department of Transportation in January. But the donation was based on the condition that the depot could be used only for the public purpose of a museum, or ownership would revert to the state. Would adding a privately operated coffee shop to the museum as a secondary use violate that condition? No one seems to have explored the question.

The process the city used is perplexing for several reasons. The request for proposals was sent out less than four weeks after DOT donated the property to the city. Why the rush? No wonder Historical Society members are suspicious that discussions about moving a private business into the museum might have taken place before the deed was even in the city's hands.

Also, the advertisement was prepared under the direction of the city's Department of Cultural and Civic Services, headed by Dr. Kathleen Monahan.

Monahan is a smart administrator with long years of city experience. She surely knows how a delicate matter like this should be handled: with plenty of input from all parties involved. Monahan said the request was sent out by mistake while she was on vacation, but she has not provided a full explanation of why the advertisement was even considered, much less drawn up, without the involvement of the Historical Society and the City Commission. However, a letter she wrote hints that Posivach provided the direction to look for new revenue sources.

Another issue ruffling feathers in Tarpon Springs is that the request for proposals was not distributed directly to Tarpon businesses, which would have given them a crack at the opportunity. Tampa businesses seemed to receive better distribution of the RFPs. Why?

The city got no responses to the request for proposals, so the idea can die a blessed death. But the city owes a thorough explanation to those who were offended by the bungled process. And city commissioners should require that in the future, all requests for proposals come to them for approval before the city staff sends them out.

Tarpon Springs coffee shop proposal brewed up tempest 04/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 12:11pm]
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