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City Hall, church: We won't sell for a song

At City Hall this week, officials kept their fingers crossed that medical software giant SCC Soft Computer might pull up stakes from Palm Harbor and plant roots downtown.

But they said negotiations are embryonic and stressed the need to be patient.

Any project on the bluff will require delicate negotiations, especially if public property is involved, because voter approval is required.

Landing SCC, a company with 500 highly paid employees, would be a feather in downtown's cap, city leaders agree. But they are sensitive to the perception that the city is over-eager to put together a deal that would include Calvary Baptist Church's historic downtown sanctuary and church property nearby.

City Hall, they say, won't be given away.

"I don't want Calvary to think that we're so hellbent on getting something done that City Hall is going to be available at fire sale prices to make their numbers work," said Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton.

Commissioners agree that any project including City Hall must include a mix of public uses, including retail and restaurant space.

But commissioners were split in their response when word of SCC's negotiations with Calvary and the city became public last week. Hamilton and Commissioner Bill Jonson questioned whether the bluff, with its spectacular views of the downtown waterfront, is the right spot to build a corporate headquarters and condominiums. Mayor Brian Aungst and Commissioner Frank Hibbard, meanwhile, were more receptive to the idea.

"Just because it's difficult doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do," Hibbard said.

"I just think we need to take it slow and go through the courting process and make sure they're the right match for us."

The property is central to downtown redevelopment, and city leaders believe they have one shot to strike a deal. Stung in July 2000 by voters' overwhelming defeat of a developer's sweeping $300-million downtown plan, they don't want to repeat missteps or risk another failed vote.

And with the clock ticking on Calvary's planned move to its new home off McMullen-Booth Road, SCC is a legitimate suitor that should not be dismissed, according to Aungst.

"It's not like we've got 100 great opportunities lined up before us and we can just cherry-pick from the best," he said.

Last week, city staffers met with Calvary Baptist representatives, according to City Manager Bill Horne.

"I think what we're seeing is kind of a global discussion about how to proceed," he said. "And how to create some kind of a sequence of activity. The fact that we are public and they're private adds a complication."

SCC officials have declined to comment on negotiations, but Calvary Baptist spokesman Skip Dvornick said he is confident any project planned on the bluff will include retail, restaurant, housing and office components.

"I've not talked to a single developer who does not understand that any development on the bluff has to be attractive and make a major contribution to revitalization," he said. "Ultimately, we're trusting God to bring us the right buyer at the right time for the right price."

Dvornick said Calvary's goal is threefold: to negotiate a deal that benefits the church, is financially viable for the developer and well-received by the public. Calvary, he said, is in no hurry to sell.

City officials say they can be patient, too.

"Nothing's going to happen on that bluff easily," said Hamilton. "But if it's a strong enough project it'll be able to stand on its own. It'll be able to weather the entire gamut of public scrutiny."

_ Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrellsptimes.com.

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