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New Port Richey begins cultivating new image

From a $30-million rainmaker of a redevelopment project to a visit from the president, 2004 in New Port Richey was marked by unprecedented events, including a changing of the guard at City Hall.

Officials dodged a bullet early in the year when a general fund budget crisis forecasted in 2003 was held at bay, thanks to lower-than-anticipated insurance costs and attrition-aided job cuts.

The break enabled leaders to continue normal city operations and focus attention on redevelopment initiatives that included neighborhood and business renovations.

Other projects on the drawing board included plans for a $9.5-million recreation center and aquatic complex on Van Buren Street. City leaders began working with an architecture firm this year to design the "resort-style" facility that will promote the city and serve as an alternative to area theme parks.

But 2004 also saw the exodus of prominent department heads at City Hall, most notably the June departure of longtime City Manager Gerald Seeber.

The turnover included resignations from chief building official Gary Breevort in April, development director Fred Metcalf in June and Assistant City Manager for redevelopment Gerald Paradise in September.

Despite the exits, New Port Richey welcomed several key faces in 2004.

New City Manager J. Scott Miller of Georgia arrived in November to replace Seeber as the city's top administrator.

Prior to his arrival, residents voted in new Mayor Dan Tipton, a remodeling business owner, during an April election. Also voted in was City Council member and former Marine Matthew Paul McCaffery.

Along with incumbent city leaders, they worked to usher in a new era for aging New Port Richey, which is being challenged by rapid suburban growth in unincorporated Pasco County.

Elected leaders expressed hope in 2004 that the administration changes at City Hall would spur a new, "development-friendly" attitude in New Port Richey. To sweeten the pot, incentives and grants for relocating businesses were proposed to prod revitalization.

In a success story, City Council and Community Redevelopment Agency approval was granted for Main Street Landing, a $30-million Tuscan-themed project designed to bring a mix of retail and residential development to the city's gateway. Gainesville developers Ken and Linda McGurn are backing the project that was first proposed by Peter Altman, a former city mayor and Pasco County commissioner.

Financial incentives from the city helped land the project and have been proposed for other ventures.

The goal, council member Ginny Miller said then, is to send "a signal . . . that here's a city that will sit down and figure out how to make this happen."

Elected leaders decided in March to hire a real estate broker to help them scout and acquire land.

And in April, St. Petersburg developer Grady Pridgen announced his idea for a $50-million mixed-use project opposite Main Street Landings in New Port Richey's downtown.

Late 2004 saw ordinance changes that will enable the opening of the city's first bed and breakfast. New rules will also allow code enforcement officials to clean up unsightly rental properties in the city thanks to a change that holds landlords liable for problems instead of tenants.

The initiatives are evidence, city leaders said, that a turnaround is possible, even after the state granted formal permission in May for the city's largest taxpayer, Community Hospital, to leave for suburban Trinity.

But as much as things changed in 2004, the city's financial constraints reamined when it came to the operating budget for fire, parks, police and the like.

Major problems are on the horizon in 2005, city staff said. While redevelopment efforts continue to boost property values, that money must go to the CRA for similar projects, not the city's struggling general fund.

"We've pretty much avoided a crisis by about a year," city finance director Rick Snyder said in July.

Added council member Tom Finn, a "looming $1-million deficit is pretty much unchanged."