The path to revitalizing Fifth Avenue in Zephyrhills won't travel through a privately owned bank building miscast as both a potential city library and as an economic stimulus for downtown.
Monday evening, a Zephyrhills City Council majority correctly affirmed earlier decisions to spend $1.5 million in Penny for Pasco sale tax revenue to expand the library at its current home on Eighth Street.
In doing so, the Council rejected the notion of abandoning the city property in favor of a site just two blocks away — the former Wachovia Bank building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Seventh Street. That impractical plan, resurrected again after Council twice turned down the idea, amounted to little more than a proposed government bailout of a private real estate investment.
TAK Properties Inc., whose officers are listed in state records as Tim Linville and Clyde A. Biston, bought the building in 2009 for $550,000 and recently offered it to the city for $855,000. Construction company owner Kevin Ryman, a partner with Biston in another venture, also identified himself as one of the building's owners. Monday night, their real estate agent said the city could have the place for $600,000, more than 50 percent above the $397,000 value set by the Pasco Property Appraiser's Office.
They weren't the only ones trying to close a deal. Another party, Eric Hilferding of ClassB Inc., came forward and offered to sell his company's 9,700-square-foot building on Fifth Avenue for $1.19 million, a $200,000 discount off the asking price. His late pitch demonstrated the impropriety of trying to steer public money to specific private interests without giving all downtown property owners the opportunity to participate.
Only Council member Jodi Wilkeson and Mayor Steve Van Gorden, whose successful mayoral campaign in the spring accepted $750 in contributions from some of the bank building's owners, supported the Wachovia location. As mayor, Van Gorden does not vote, but he urged the Council to reopen the library site selection.
Fortunately, the rest of the council discarded the mayor's advice. Council member Lance Smith pointed out the city had invested $2 million in a downtown streetscape and building facade improvements and he worried the cost of buying and renovating an aging bank building would exceed the $1.5 million allocated for an improved library.
Council member and business owner Charlie Proctor was more emphatic. "I don't live off government,'' he said, effectively ending the public debate.
The empty Wachovia building and the planned departure of ClassB, which prints logos on T-shirts and hats, are highly visible redevelopment issues confronting downtown. But, expecting the city to absorb empty real estate is not an acceptable business strategy nor prudent governing amid municipal budgets stressed by shrinking property values.