Yes votes on three referendum questions on the March 11 Tarpon Springs election ballot would help advance a private, mixed-use development planned on the city's southern flank and provide substantial side benefits for the city and Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.
The St. Petersburg Times has examined the ballot issues and recommends voters approve all three questions. However, doing so requires a leap of faith that the developer, city and hospital officials will carry out their promises to the community, because there is not yet a written agreement that compels them to do so.
Here is what is proposed:
A development company, AG Armstrong, has been seeking land and approvals to build a $30-million project of condominiums, retail stores and offices, called Meres Crossing, on mostly vacant property extending from Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital northward to the intersection of Pinellas Avenue (Alt. U.S. 19) and Meres Boulevard. If completed, the project will give a new, dynamic feel to the city's southern gateway. It will be anchored by a Sweetbay supermarket.
For voters, this all may sound oddly familiar. That's because in March 2006, they signed off on the city's sale of 7.2 acres in that area to AG Armstrong. Since that vote, there have been some new developments.
It turned out that Helen Ellis Hospital had a right to use that land under its lease with the city and had long hoped to build a medical office building there. Hospital officials and AG Armstrong have now reached a verbal agreement they say is beneficial to both. AG Armstrong would build a medical office building on property immediately north of the hospital and would guarantee the hospital use of 100 parking spaces in a parking garage to be built for the Meres Crossing project.
Question 1 on the ballot asks voters to authorize the Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation to sell a small parcel it owns — 0.62 acre — to the developer in exchange for the right to the 100 garage spaces. The parcel is on the north end of the main hospital parking lot and now contains 78 parking spaces. Under Armstrong's plan, the parcel would be used to provide access to the new medical offices and garage.
Question 2 asks voters to allow the city to delete from its lease with Helen Ellis Hospital a 1.6-acre parcel of city-owned property north of the hospital grounds so the land can be sold to the developer for the medical offices and parking facility. That land contains some wetlands, which would be destroyed if the project proceeds as proposed, but would be mitigated in another location — hopefully, somewhere in Tarpon Springs.
Hospital CEO Don Evans says construction of the medical office building is essential to the future of the hospital.
"We very much need an office building adjacent to the hospital campus," he said, adding that having the office facility would help him recruit doctors, particularly much-needed specialists, and would also make health care more convenient for patients, who could visit doctors in the medical building and walk next door for tests at the hospital.
The city is equally eager for the Meres Crossing project to proceed, not only because of the growth in the city tax base that it would bring, but also because the city plans to work with the developer to extend Meres Boulevard to Safford Avenue. Eventually, the city wants to push Meres all the way to U.S. 19, providing a new route to evacuate residents from the west side of town if a hurricane threatens.
We have two concerns about this project:
1. None of the agreements between the city, hospital and AG Armstrong are signed and sealed. They are part of a development agreement that is still being written and will have to be approved by the City Commission. If the voters approve Questions 1 and 2, it is incumbent upon city and hospital officials to make sure that the project develops as promised or is halted. Residents should watch to make sure that happens.
2. The property that the city decided to sell to AG Armstrong in 2006 contains a stormwater retention pond that collects runoff from the hospital campus. The 1.6-acre property that is on the March 11 ballot contains wetlands, a natural water retention area. If Meres Crossing is completed, where will stormwater from the hospital campus go? Evans says the development agreement will contain a guarantee that AG Armstrong will handle the hospital's runoff. Since the area around the hospital has long been prone to flooding problems, it is essential that a well-designed drainage plan be developed by AG Armstrong engineers and carefully examined by the city and water authorities before the project advances.
Question 3 on the March 11 ballot would allow the Helen Ellis Hospital Foundation to sell a medical office building it owns in New Port Richey and rents out to medical practitioners. The hospital board has decided it would be better to sell that facility and use the proceeds for capital improvements to the main hospital facility in Tarpon Springs. That's a direction that should be encouraging to Tarpon Springs residents who have wondered about the future of their hospital.
The Times recommends a yes vote on Questions 1, 2 and 3 on March 11.