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City torn over best use of 3 prime acres

The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast has developed a unique partnership with the city of Largo.

It began 14 years ago when members of the business community asked representatives for the largest not-for-profit hospice organization in the world to consider relocating its administrative headquarters to East Bay Drive.

Through the years, both prospered. The city added thousands of residents on acres of land. The hospice doubled the size of its headquarters.

When hospice was honored on a postage stamp in 1999, the official first-day-of-issue launch was at Hospice of the Florida Suncoast in Largo.

But that partnership has reached a crossroads. City officials appear stumped trying to accommodate the hospice's need for growth with their own desire for an entertainment district downtown.

"It's reflective in the fact that we have conflicting goals," said Largo City Manager Steven Stanton.

The conflict comes down to real estate, less than 3 acres of prime land directly west of the hospice.

The city has long waited for a developer to seize the location and use it to launch its plans for redevelopment.

The hospice covets the city's former police station property, too. When it came available in 1999, the hospice immediately expressed interest in purchasing it for a conference center, a wellness center and an expansive parking lot. It even had a coffee shop, an atrium and plenty of green space to match Largo Central Park across the street.

"It was well received," said Scott Kistler, vice president of operations for the hospice. But the commission did not see the nonprofit's social mission of helping families cope with the final stage of life as the best use for the city's signature corner, at Missouri Avenue and East Bay Drive.

"Ultimately, it did not fit into their vision and the process was halted," said Mary Labyak, president of the hospice.

Stanton said developers refer to that property as "highest and best use," and that the city toiled over how to balance the need for being a good neighbor with doing good business.

"Hospice is a superb social and not-for-profit organization, and the community wants to do everything they can to keep them in the city," said Stanton.

With that in mind, commissioners decided this year to give 1.1 acres of the land to hospice. A real estate agent was hired to find a restaurant or hotel developer to deal with the rest.

But suddenly the city has received a proposal from an unnamed developer who wants to build a four-story hotel and a standalone restaurant on the entire property. The only way to get that and keep the hospice in the mix is for the city to buy the corner Citgo station for $1.49-million.

"Let's face it, that's the corner of our redevelopment," said Commissioner Pat Gerard. "There was always the thought that we wanted to help hospice. But to give them the whole property would not be in the best interest of the redevelopment plan."

At a meeting Tuesday, officials directed the city staff to negotiate a better deal with the gas station owner, and with the hotel developer, who has offered $750,000 for the property.

And they want $420,000 from the hospice, not the $318,000 that was offered. City officials say the higher price is based on a new appraisal.

Labyak and Kistler said they want to work with the city and negotiate a fair price.

But they want city officials to be mindful of the hospice's contribution to the city's economy. They have a budget of $72-million spent in Pinellas County, most of that used to compensate doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others delivering medical services.

The hospice has about 1,000 employees and 3,000 volunteers working in four Pinellas locations, and they all rotate through the buildings in downtown Largo.

They eat in restaurants. They shop in town. Some even are members of the Rotary Club.

"All that to say we are a destination," Kistler said.

Labyak doesn't want the city to abandon its plan for redevelopment. But she wants it to be fair. The hospice needs more service space and has been asking to expand for four years.

"We don't want to be at odds, but this question needs to be answered," Labyak said. "And then we will move on, one way or the other."

Gerard said she intends to honor the commitment.

Commissioner Harriet Crozier said she won't even ask the hospice to pay more than it has offered.

"Personally, I think we have jerked them around enough," said Crozier.

But she does feel that the hotel and restaurant is not only in the city's interest, proving the partnership continues to exist.

"This hotel benefits hospice as much as it benefits the community," she said.

Commissioner Charlie Harper said the city has to make an effort, even if it means finding the hospice another property appropriate for the expansion.

"We have to maintain hospice in the city, and treat them with a great deal of respect, because they are a loyal member of the city," Harper said. "We are going to have to come up with something.

_ Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or