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Old plant "not in the future'

At the edge of downtown, the sound of nightlife is supposed to be the thumping music that wafts out of the new clubs along the Channel District.

But in the middle of this scene is a sound that just doesn't fit in:

A giant flour mill, which produces the equivalent of 750,000 2-pound bags of flour a day, is whirling and hissing like an upset stomach. Outside, semitrailer trucks and railroad cars are cluttering the streets as they load and unload their deliveries.

With a new entertainment complex proposed for the Channel District, the old Channelside of industry and dock workers is clashing with its latest incarnation, an area designed specifically for yuppies with disposable income to spend.

The latest battle goes before the City Council this week.

Pinnacle Group Holdings wants the city to close parts of four streets by the mill so it can build a swanky new shopping complex, with a high-end steak house, upscale seafood restaurant, an outdoor amphitheater for concerts and residential lofts splashed in Miami pastels.

Con Agra executives say the mill, with its steel steampipes and silo barns, needs the roads open so trucks can transport flour. Closing the roads would increase the company's transportation costs and cause the price of flour to rise, executives say.

"The access . . . is critically important," attorney Richard Davis told City Council members recently.

The mill has been operating since 1938, when it opened its doors as a corn processing plant. Downtown was then just a shadow of today's modern cityscape.

In 1970, Con Agra, an agricultural giant based in Omaha, Neb., converted the plant into a flour mill. Today, it operates 24 hours a day, employs 43 full-time workers and pays about $104,000 a year in city taxes. It supplies most local grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants, including the makers of Ybor City's Cuban bread.

About 14 years ago, the City Council voted to let the mill expand. City Council member Linda Saul-Sena said it is a vote she feels guilty about casting.

"I shouldn't have done it," she said.

Even then, Channelside's future was changing. The area was moving from an industrial area to an entertainment district, where city leaders were planning to build a hockey arena and the Florida Aquarium.

"Cities evolve, and (the mill) is not in the future," Saul-Sena said. "They are in the past."

The future belongs to projects such as Pinnacle's.

On land between the flour mill and the Channelside shops, developers want to build a four-block complex that would include 296 apartments, a 250-room hotel, a shopping plaza with high-end restaurants and two parking garages with 2,600 spaces.

Pinnacle also wants to build an observation tower with meeting spaces that would stand about 55 stories tall _ making it as tall as Tampa's skyscrapers.

Backers say the tower would become a destination for tourists, who could cross the street to check out the Florida Aquarium. Visitors embarking on cruises at the nearby port terminal might also swing by the tower.

For the city, the development would help support taxpayer-financed projects such as the new trolley line to Ybor City, the Aquarium and the Marriott Waterside hotel.

The expressway authority also plans to widen a street by the proposed complex to accommodate an expansion of the Selmon Crosstown Expressway. By enlarging Meridan Street and landscaping it, the area would have a main street that would dump cars into the area.

But unless the city closes the roads by the plant, the Pinnacle project won't get started, attorney David Mechanik told the City Council. With an approval, managing partner Frank DeBose says construction can begin this summer with stores opening in April 2004.

When it opens, it will be designed with its back to the flour mill _ trying as best it can to ignore its neighbor to the north. As many windows as possible will face away from the plant, and DeBose plans to build a wall separating the two structures.

Officially, the two neighbors say they are cooperating. But at a recent City Council meeting, their representatives sniped at each other repeatedly.

Mechanik accused flour mill executives of withholding information so they could ambush him at the meeting. Davis, the mill's attorney, warned that closing the road would create dire consequences for the plant and pose a safety risk.

"They are not trying to make life easy for me," DeBose said. But he conceded he wasn't making life easy for Con Agra.

At the meeting, Saul-Sena asked Con Agra officials when they planned to move out of the area altogether.

"They should have seen the handwriting on the wall 12 years ago and developed an exit strategy," she said later in an interview.

Lynn Myers, a Con Agra executive vice president, came to the podium but never responded to Saul-Sena's question.

Saul-Sena said Con Agra wants the city to find $40-million in tax money to move the plant to the port. There, the plant could ship its flour by boat to future markets such as Cuba, she said.

Mayor Dick Greco has spoken to mill executives about relocating the plant, but without success.

A Con Agra spokesman in Omaha refused to discuss moving the plant, saying it would not be "appropriate."

"The issue is money," said Kim Markham, a resident and editor of the Channelside District newsletter. "As I understand it, they are willing to go if they can be relocated at no expense or with some incentives."

Until the plant moves, it will continue to get in the way of the mayor's redevelopment plans. Railroad lines that now feed the plant make it impossible to connect Channelside to downtown on main streets such as Kennedy Boulevard.

"The plant has been there, and Tampa has grown up around it," Markham said. "It just shouldn't be there anymore."

_ Times staff writer David Karp is at (813) 226-3376 or