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Bay Plaza seems to have votes to win extension

It looks like Bay Plaza has enough support on the City Council to remain as redeveloper of downtown St. Petersburg.

The formal vote to extend the city's redevelopment agreement with Bay Plaza is scheduled for today after what promises to be a lengthy public hearing. Supporters and opponents of the extension are expected to fill council chambers for the 8:30 a.m. meeting.

But when all the speakers are through, when all the points have been made, it would appear that five of the council's eight members will approve Bay Plaza's contract extension.

"Well, I hope so," Bay Plaza president Jack Fox said Wednesday. "We've worked hard at it. . . . We would like to have this thing happen."

This time, he said, Bay Plaza will listen to St. Petersburg residents as it redraws its plans.

It was local input that led representatives from four grass-roots organizations to ask Mayor David Fischer and the council on Wednesday to table Bay Plaza's request for at least three months. The time would be used to give local organizations a chance to help chart the downtown's future.

"It is vital that the City, in a joint effort between the citizens and their government, take charge of downtown's destiny," architect Tim Clemmons read from a statement endorsed by leaders of the four groups. They presented it during a meeting with Fischer.

For his part, Fischer said he remained opposed to an extension of the agreement with Bay Plaza but that some compromise could emerge from today's debate.

"My position is that this is the best time to unwind" under the terms of the existing contract, Fischer said.

That agreement, struck eight years ago, made the private firm of Bay Plaza Cos. responsible for the redevelopment of a deteriorating downtown. It was to oversee a $200-million project that stretched from the city's waterfront to the ThunderDome, a task that would stretch well into the next century.

While portions of the project have occurred, larger elements of it have languished or been removed from plans entirely.

It is Bay Plaza's failure to meet a June 30 deadline to begin construction of a 24-screen theater and surrounding retail space that produced today's expected vote. Under the contract's terms, missing the deadline gives the city the chance to declare a default and begin "unwinding" its agreement with Bay Plaza.

Business development groups such as the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce have lobbied hard this year to save the Bay Plaza agreement, but neighborhood groups have been just as active in opposing it.

Both sides are expected to be represented at today's hearing.

If Bay Plaza prevails in the vote, Fox said that his firm would be ready to conduct a series of public forums beginning sometime in mid-July.

Company officials hope that soliciting public opinion will help a revamped plan to gain wider acceptance than the current agreement.