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The price of growth // High-profile city projects open amid questions

Published Jul. 6, 2006

The city's plans to build a convention center, an office building and a new police headquarters turned into a municipal mess that led to the retirement of City Manager Betty Deptula.

When city commissioners forged ahead with the three major building projects in 1994, they didn't have a clear idea of what each building would look like and what one of them _ the Harborview Center _ would cost.

Now, more than two years and $35-million later, the city still is trying to sort it all out.

The Harborview convention center _ with its $14.6-million price tag _ has cost more than twice its original estimate; the new police headquarters is more than nine months past its scheduled opening; and work on a 500-space parking garage hasn't begun.

After a monthlong review, the Times found that the projects were plagued by confusion and loose management. Architectural and construction contracts offered the city little protection against cost overruns and building delays; the city hired an architect without seeking competitive bids; and until late in the projects, no up-to-date system was in place at City Hall to keep tabs on how the public's money was being spent.

The troubled projects have forced present city commissioners to spend another $125,000 to hire a consultant and auditor to tell them whether the city spent its money wisely on the projects.

Dunedin deals with police, but baseball issue remains

Two issues dominated Dunedin politics in 1996: police protection and spring-training baseball.

The Dunedin City Commission voted in January 1995 to disband the Police Department and to hire the Sheriff's Office to provide law enforcement, projecting a savings of $9-million over four years.

Opponents of the move forced a referendum vote in February even though the local department had already been disbanded.

Almost half of the city's voters cast ballots, and the vote was 3-1 in favor of the move to hire the Sheriff's Office. Tom Osborne and Jack St. Arnold, two commissioners who had voted to disband the local department, handily won re-election.

Commissioners also wrestled with the popularity of spring training and the cost of keeping the Toronto Blue Jays in town.

The team, which has a contract with Dunedin through 1999, wants the city to improve its baseball facilities. The team wants four new practice fields, better lighting, bigger locker rooms and clubhouse renovations. It also wants all spring-training facilities on the same site.

The team talked to several other cities and counties about moving.

Dunedin, which estimates that the Blue Jays bring about $6-million to the city's economy each year, formed a task force. It determined that almost all the improvements are possible except centralizing the spring-training facilities. There isn't enough available land for that, the task force said.

The price for the improvements is estimated to be $3-million. At the end of the year, the issue has not been resolved.

Clearwater mayor rides commission overhaul

In March, Clearwater Mayor Rita Garvey won a fourth term, despite a spirited challenge by Jim Warner, president of a Sand Key real estate company.

Warner campaigned on $38,000 in contributions, more than twice what Garvey raised. He also told voters he would display more energy and vision than Garvey, especially when it came to the sagging business climate in downtown and in Clearwater Beach. Garvey responded with a platform that portrayed Warner as the "glitzy" newcomer and Clearwater as a small, neighborly town.

Voters gave Garvey a resounding victory and selected two other new commissioners, as well.

Ed Hooper defeated incumbent Sue Berfield, and Karen Seel defeated two other candidates to take the seat held by Fred Thomas, who did not run for re-election.

The election sealed a near complete turnover of the commission, which only a year before had been dominated by Thomas, Berfield and Art Deegan.

Safety Harbor gets face lift

Safety Harbor in April launched a major redevelopment of its picturesque downtown, a nearly yearlong project that will cost $2.3-million.

The beautification project includes new roads, wider sidewalks, business directories, custom lampposts improved drainage and infrastructure work under the streets.

While business owners and city officials hope the project will make downtown even more vital, the construction has been trying at times.

Businesses had trouble routing customers through the detours; residents complained about commercial traffic through normally quiet streets. Even City Hall, which sits on Main Street, was almost inaccessible during some phases.

Most of the project is complete, though some work will continue through at least February.