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'Mr. Smooth' makes the pitch for malls

In Charlotte County, they call him "Mr. Smooth." In Ocala, Assistant City Manager Charlie Lynn says, "He charms the pants off you."

Quite a feat for a man who is charged with convincing local governments and citizens that acres of forest, fields, and sometimes even wetlands, should be turned into shopping malls.

Meet Dick A. Greco Jr., vice president of the Ohio-based Edward J.

DeBartolo Corp., one of the nation's major mall builders. His office is in Tampa, but his work takes him throughout the country.

DeBartolo hired Greco 16 years ago when the developer was preparing to make a push into Florida. Since then, the number of DeBartolo malls in the state has grown from a handful to 23, one-third of the company's total nationwide. Crystal River is next.

Greco, 56, has played a big part in that growth. In public meetings and in negotiations, he's the point man who soothes hot tempers with reassuring explanations and creative solutions - within the limits of DeBartolo's pocketbook.

"We call him 'Mr. Smooth,' " said Kevin Grace, assistant county

administrator in Charlotte County, "He's the perfect man for that job."

The Port Charlotte Town Center, a 700,000-square-foot DeBartolo mall, opened August 1989.

In Crystal River, Greco came up against wetlands, gopher tortoises and an overburdened city sewage system that was polluting Kings Bay, winter home for the endangered manatee.

"We went through a lot of gyrations to get that project, and I think rightly so," he said. Regulation is needed to prevent less scrupulous developers from destroying Florida's fragile environment, he said.

Working with elected officials is second nature for Greco. He served four years on the Tampa City Council before upsetting incumbent Mayor Nick Nuccio in 1967 to become the youngest-ever mayor of Tampa at the age of 34.

Six years later, he shocked the Tampa political world by resigning in the middle of his second term, abandoning a burgeoning political career to join DeBartolo on April 1, 1974. He has never looked back.

The driving factor was money. With three school-age children, he felt the $35,000 salary he earned as mayor was not enough to support his family.

Leaving politics "was a very painful thing for me to tell you the truth," he said. " . . . I left something I truly loved, but I simply couldn't afford to stay in it."

In the DeBartolo corporation, he found a job that pays him well enough to live in stylish Hyde Park Village in Tampa and drive a beige Lincoln. But he also found a job that he enjoys because he's constantly on the road meeting politicians and people.

"He's so good with people," Crystal River city planner Merv Waldrop said. "He can meet new people and he makes them feel comfortable. You can tell he likes to be around people. He loves people."

Those who knew him as mayor would agree. His office door was open to all comers, according to a 1968 St. Petersburg Times profile. He would wander the streets of the city he grew up in, stopping to talk with anyone, playing pool with the local teen-agers and offering compassionate words to a troubled prostitute.

"I represent all the people and I try to understand all of them," he told Times reporter Elizabeth Whitney when she accompanied him for a few days to research the profile.

Whitney, who interviewed Greco only that one time, recalled that he was a born politician with an amazing memory for names. Last November, Whitney ran into Greco on an airplane, their only meeting other than the interview.

"Our eyes met and he immediately said to me, after 20 years, 'Hello, Elizabeth,' " she said. "It's just a gift the man has."

As he sought to represent everyone as mayor, he seeks to answer everyone's concerns as the salesman for a DeBartolo mall. He never seems to be in a hurry to leave after a city council meeting, even when he has a long drive home ahead of him.

After the Ocala City Council approved an expansion to the Paddock Mall on a Tuesday night in January, he headed out the door for the two-hour drive back to Tampa.

When the meeting ended an hour later, reporters found him standing outside on the steps of City Hall.

"A member of the Zoning Board of Adjustment came by and wanted to talk," he explained. When the reporters left, he was still chatting with city officials as they slowly filed out of the meeting.

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