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Gulfport leads boom on the beach

(ran Beach, West editions)

The city's successful use of public projects to spur commercial development has other cities taking notes.

Gulfport took a risk.

In the city's waterfront redevelopment district, where old homes and tired businesses have been successfully restored and expanded, the city approved two projects conventionally viewed as dangerous for the tax rolls.

On one piece of valuable waterfront land, they created a new city park; at the entrance to the business district, they paved the way for a private owner to sell his land to a church.

Neither the city nor the church pays taxes. But as far as City Manager Bob Lee is concerned, those two non-taxpayers _ a new Latter-Day Saints church and Veterans Park _ spurred growth along the city's Beach Boulevard, helping to make downtown Gulfport one of the county's property value success stories for 1999.

According to estimates from the property appraiser's office, the taxable value of Gulfport's waterfront business district, where $2-million in government grants has been invested since the mid-1990s, increased 15.5 percent between 1999 and 2000. Property values in the rest of Gulfport increased 8.8 percent.

The countywide average was 8.25 percent.

"If I had to point to one thing, universally, throughout the city the same thing is happening: People are investing in these properties," Lee said.

Gulfport is not alone, although in Pinellas County, Gulfport's tax-increment financing district is second only to Belleair Shore in its property value increase. Along Pinellas County's Gulf Coast beaches and throughout the rest of Pinellas, redevelopment and refurbishings are adding up to healthy increases in property values.

The higher property values represent revitalized residential neighborhoods and new condominium developments. Values climbed less steeply in Treasure Island, where new projects are planned but not yet executed, and South Pasadena, which is limited in geographic space and remaining developable land.

The Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office releases preliminary estimates of taxable land values every May for all local municipalities. City officials use them to plan their budgets and decide property tax rates.

An increase in property values does not automatically signify an increase in taxes. Elected officials will set millage rates this summer. Some are considering a "rollback rate," which is the tax rate needed for a municipality to collect the same amount of money for next year as it did this year, despite the higher property values.

Treasure Island hopes to soon follow in Gulfport's footsteps.

The city's property values climbed 6.5 percent this year over last. And while the figure dims in comparison to communities that experienced exponential growth, the rate is impressive compared to previous years. Last year, Treasure Island's property values increased 2.2 percent over 1998.

The city is using some of the same rationales that Gulfport used, City Manager Chuck Coward said, using city projects on visible land to encourage growth in the surrounding area.

"We're doing the same types of things on the same belief system as they've had," Coward said. "As we do our beautification of 107th Avenue, as we extend our beach trail north to John's Pass and south to Blind Pass, all of our projects that are adjacent to those projects, history tells us, will increase in value."

Already, Coward says, an upward trend is beginning in Treasure Island. The Marquesa, a 17-unit condominium complex completed last year, is part of the tax rolls for the first time this year. It is the first new condo complex for Treasure Island, and with units sold for between $500,000 and $1.2-million, it is a lucrative one.

In Madeira Beach, values increased 8.8 percent. City Manager Mike Bonfield credits the new Madeira Cove condominiums for the growth. The city had $445,456 worth of new construction last year. Without it, the city would have experienced only a 6.9 percent rise in property values.

St. Pete Beach property values increased 7.5 percent between 1999 and 2000. The city had $3.4-million in new construction last year, giving it the sixth-largest tax base in Pinellas County.

Yet a town can do well without a revitalized business district or large condominium complexes. Redington Beach, a town that prides itself on its residential character, saw its property values increase 8.5 percent _ slightly better than the county average.

"There's been no new construction," Redington Beach Mayor Jerry Reitz said. "The town has a reputation of being extremely residential, virtually 100 percent, and that's the way the people like it.

"I do think there's an ongoing awareness of people just keeping their homes extra-nice."

Reitz said Redington Beach's dedication to code enforcement also feeds its growth in value.

North Redington Beach continued to experience high-volume growth in property values.

The main impetus for the 13.3 percent increase is the Tides Beach Club, a $66-million luxury condominium complex which opened three more new buildings last year.

New construction is not added to this year's taxes rolls unless it was completed by Jan. 1, 2000.

Last year property values climbed a hefty 17.8 percent in North Redington Beach after the first three buildings opened at the Tides.

North Redington might be in for another year of growth next year, after the Tides opens the last of its seven buildings this summer. All units at the Tides have been purchased.

Without the new construction North Redington Beach has experienced, the property appraiser's office says, the growth in value of existing homes and businesses there would have been significantly slower. Instead of 13.3 percent growth rate, it would have held steady at 3.3 percent _ slower than even South Pasadena, which had the smallest rise in property values in Pinellas County.

1999 final 2000 estimated Percent

City taxable value taxable value change

Gulfport $366,531,950 $398,699,010 8.8%

Gulfport TIF+ $10,123,100 $11,688,200 15.5%

Madeira Beach $416,840,140 $452,727,830 8.6%

N. Redington Beach $170,103,210 $192,648,980 13.3%

Redington Beach $130,324,230 $141,373,910 8.5%

Redington Shores $197,047,340 $213,719,040 8.5%

South Pasadena $311,691,980 $323,593,085 3.8%

St. Pete Beach $1,128,636,530 $1,213,783,820 7.5%

T. Verde Fire Dist. $405,372,700 $438,517,300 8.2%

Treasure Island $674,519,980 $718,427,540 6.5%

County average 8.25%

SOURCE: Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Office

+ Tax-increment financing allows cities to use property-tax revenues from rising values in a specific area to fund improvements in that area.

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