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St. Pete Beach city hall plan reborn

The city and a local developer have resurrected a deal thought dead, breathing life into plans for a new city hall along the city's historic main street.

The project, controversial since its inception more than a year ago, hands the contract to build city hall to St. Pete Beach developer Paul Skipper without a public bid process.

The deal's new lease on life has already drawn the ire of City Commission critics, who call its timing and circumstances suspect.

The proposed deal became public as city government watchers picked up commission meeting agendas on Friday and were surprised to see the old deal back on track.

Both opponents and proponents called friends over the weekend, urging them to show up in force for the 7 p.m. meeting today at City Hall.

"It's going to be the showdown at the OK Corral" city resident John Bailey said.

The new offer is much like the old, with some exceptions: The old price started out at $2.8-million and, after a number of design changes, increased to $3.1-million shortly before the developer backed out of the project in January.

The new contract price is $3.3-million, though new furniture, landscaping and other costs would bring the total to $3.84-million.

Commissioner Jim Myers, who called the plan's critics "the vocal minority," said the increased cost doesn't trouble him.

"If this is a bit more expensive than that, well, we missed the opportunity, we missed the bargain day," Myers said. "But I still think it sounds like a good deal as long as we can verify we're getting our money's worth."

This time the city, not the developer, will keep the interest earned on a $1-million deposit paid by the city. Last year commissioners changed their old contract with the developer to give him the interest without asking how much the decision would cost the city. The answer? About $84,000.

Under the old deal, Skipper would have donated to the city a property at the Corey Causeway entrance to St. Pete Beach. In exchange, the city would pay the developer to build its new city hall on the site and would likely demolish the current City Hall and develop a waterfront park in its place.

Now the developer is still supplying the land, though part of the contract price would go toward reimbursing him for it.

The critics question why the revised deal has virtually no paper trail _ no internal memos, e-mails or correspondence with the developer _ detailing how the plan was reborn. They also wonder why commissioners have been reluctant to put the project on the ballot.

If accepted by the commission, the new city hall would become the most expensive project ever approved in St. Pete Beach without a voter referendum.

Bailey, a former city commissioner who has urged commissioners to put the plan on the ballot, said the city has "every intention of taking the government not by the people, but around the people."

But Michael Seimetz, a St. Pete Beach real estate agent who has done business with Skipper, questions the criticism. The Corey Area Merchants Association also has endorsed the plan.

"If Paul Skipper and the City (Commission) were to walk on water, these people would say, "What's the matter? Can't you swim?' " Seimetz said.

City Manager Carl Schwing, who negotiated the new deal with Skipper, said time will show the value of the Corey Avenue project.