Note to those with deep pockets: The City Council is not for sale.
Not even for $1-million.
It's a lesson developer Grady Pridgen learned Thursday after offering the council a check for $1-million if members approved his rezoning request for a project at Imperial Yacht Basin near Gandy Boulevard.
Pridgen put the check on a projector in council chambers and said his banker was there to back it up.
The check would have been an advance payment on impact fees that Pridgen otherwise could have taken eight years to pay.
"It's unprecedented in Tampa for a developer to pay for their transportation impact fees up front," Pridgen said. "The benefit is to have the money in advance so the city has the money to do infrastructure improvements. Even if we got into a recession and the project stalled for some reason, they still have the money. That can only be seen as a positive."
Some council members reprimanded Pridgen for his suggestion.
"The issue of the check up there is very distasteful," said council member Rose Ferlita. "It seems to me that everybody's interpretation will be different, but that's kind of dangling the carrot. You are not, out of the goodness of your heart, giving the city $1-million. This is the first time that I've ever seen this approach from any developer. And I wanted to tell you that I'm not impressed."
Other council members, while saying they were pleased with Pridgen's offer, did not endorse his development.
"If more developers were to say, "I don't have to do this but as a gesture of goodwill I'm going to pay my impact fees up front,' I think that we would be much further down the road as far as the type of development we want to see," council member Shawn Harrison said. "However, your project is asking for 350 more units. You're following on the heels of four hurricanes. The timing is absolutely terrible for you."
In a last-minute attempt to win approval, Pridgen agreed to reduce his proposed 850-unit residential development by 100 units. Neighborhood residents had asked that the development be downsized by 350 units. But because Pridgen's compromise amounted to a new proposal, the City Council voted to delay a vote until Oct. 14. They also encouraged Pridgen to meet with residents of Sun Bay South to discuss his revised plans.
Pridgen's actions Thursday represented the latest act in a nearly two-month saga pitting the developer against residents in the area. The Gandy Civic Association, which represents the neighborhood where Pridgen's project would sit, voted to oppose it in August. The association has cited concerns about overcrowding and infrastructure problems.
Association president Al Steenson said he did not know what his constituents would think of Pridgen's new proposal.
Pridgen bought the property for $25-million in May. Although the land's original zoning included 500 residential units, the developer proposed a project with 15,000 square feet of retail space, offices, a marina, 850 residential units and a 200-room hotel.
Known for his projects in the Tampa Bay area, the Pinellas developer routinely uses aggressive tactics to get projects approved.
In St. Petersburg, Pridgen lobbied nearly a year to build a mix of homes, retail and office space on a sod farm near a solid waste facility. At issue was the project's nearness to a landfill, which future residents could one day consider a nuisance. Pinellas County commissioners voted to approve Pridgen's request, but only after he decreased the size of the development and increased its buffer to the landfill.
During negotiations, commissioners balked at Pridgen's high-priced lawyers, business associates and lobbyists. At one point, Pridgen's lawyer asked a commissioner to step into the hallway to hammer out the deal's sticking points.
Pinellas County Commission chairwoman Susan Latvala said she was shocked by Pridgen's latest action.
"I'm just appalled," Latvala said. "That's the attitude that he had with us. It was because he had this money and because he can throw his money around, this makes it okay and he can do whatever he wants."
Pridgen voiced surprise at the council's reaction. He also presented a list of $5-million in improvements he would make if the council approves his project. They include new sidewalks, sewer lift station upgrades and road work at several heavily used intersections.
If the council denies the zoning request, Pridgen likely will still build, since he already has approval for the smaller project. But the city will get much less out of the deal, he said.
"We don't know what we'll do because with the existing zoning, the $5-million worth of concessions aren't required," Pridgen said. "We'll see what happens."
He put his check back in his pocket.