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City, Bay Plaza marriage intact

(ran NS S editions of Tampa Bay & State)

Bay Plaza beat the mayor, but it's not clear yet just what it won.

After a day's worth of divided public comment, a majority of the St. Petersburg City Council decided Thursday to keep the Bay Plaza Cos. as the downtown's redeveloper.

Although company officials lobbied hard for weeks to save the agreement, their hardest work lies ahead: During the next six months, they face the daunting task of overhauling their plans for downtown even as they hold a series of public forums to learn what St. Petersburg residents want downtown to be.

"It is a short time frame," Bay Plaza president Jack Fox said at meeting's end. "I hope we can get it done in six months."

After that, according to the plan, the city will have three months to review the updated project. If the city approves, the company will have another six months to try to find tenants and construction financing. If they succeed, a third six-month period will be used to complete final construction plans and drawings.

Then, in 21 months, construction would begin.

Bay Plaza officials assured that if they missed any of these deadlines, the city has the right to kill the deal. A city attorney said, though, that the cloud of legal action still might loom.

As for Mayor David Fischer, he lost Thursday's battle but may have won the political war.

Fischer recommended the city end its stagnant eight-year relationship and said Thursday was the perfect day. Under the previous agreement, Bay Plaza was to break ground by today for its 24-screen movie and entertainment complex. But that wasn't going to happen, and the company could have been found in default.

"Is there a plan?" Fischer asked the packed meeting room. "And we're a public-private partnership, so do we have public support for this plan? And if you had those two, do you have the financing to accomplish it?

"My business sense says we have none of those at this time."

Fischer's position clearly has been a hit in many of the city's residential neighborhoods. There, resentment against indirectly footing the bill for downtown redevelopment runs high.

To date, the city has spent roughly $21-million of its $47-million obligation toward the $200-million public-private partnership. Bay Plaza claims to have spent $37-million, with $13.5-million of that in land acquisition costs.

What has the city and the company to show for it? A block-long building needing a tenant, a parking garage atop it and vacant land.

"I can appreciate the anger and the frustration," Fox said after the meeting, referring to local critics. "I'm frustrated because we have no buildings and no rental income. I can understand why somebody in the community would be frustrated."

Thursday's 5-3 vote gives company officials virtually everything they say they need to get going: The city remains as a future income source, buildings can be rescaled to suit new projects, rigid requirements for large-scale retail stores have been changed to allow office space and the possibility of residential components within the plan are now allowed.

Public comment was generally civil yet heartfelt.

Longtime Bay Plaza detractor Pat Fulton threatened the five supporters with the loss of their council seats. They include Chairwoman Leslie Curran, Edward Cole Jr., Ernest Fillyau, Bea Griswold and David Welch. Opposing the plan were Connie Kone, Robert Kersteen and Larry Williams.

Fulton tossed down a sheaf of petitions that she said had the signatures of 1,800 Bay Plaza opponents.

"The phrase for this petition was "Eight (years) Is Enough,' " she said. "The next one is "Free the Bay Plaza Five' and help them find work elsewhere."

Spectators faced tightened security after Curran reported receiving an ominous message on her answering machine.

Police Chief Darrel Stephens said the "rambling" message warned Curran against supporting the extension.

"I think it referred to blowing up Bay Plaza," Stephens said. He could not say whether it was meant as a direct threat against Curran or more of a general threat, but that the department always takes such calls seriously. "We checked City Hall very carefully."

But the security didn't affect attendance. Fire inspectors monitored the number of people in council chambers _ spectators were given numbered tickets _ and some people had to follow events on television monitors.

In all, some 75 people took their three-minute turns at the microphone. More people spoke in support of Bay Plaza than against it, and Bay Plaza forces were more coordinated. Russ Sloan, executive director of the local chamber; Bishop John Copeland, head of the black ministers' alliance; Robert Ulrich, the former mayor who has served as an attorney for Bay Plaza; Bay Plaza employees and Bay Plaza business associates all spoke for the firm.

The speakers opposed included another former mayor, architect Randy Wedding. Jon Clarke, former president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, echoed other requests that the City Council defer action for three months so that local groups could present their own plans for rebuilding the downtown.

"It's time for you to take control of this project," said Karen Mullins, current CONA president.

The most consistent theme of the day was Bay Plaza's loutish and aloof demeanor toward the locals during its eight years as the titular head of downtown redevelopment.

The now-infamous dressing down of council member Kone by former Bay Plaza president Bob Jackson last year was recalled several times.

For their part, Bay Plaza officials took their lumps, agreeing that their corporate persona had been lacking. From now on, they said, things would be different.

"We do want to include all elements of the community, so all their voices can be heard," Bay Plaza vice president Michael Van Butsel told council members. "We want the community involved."

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