A year ago this month, billionaire developer Donald Trump swept into downtown Tampa touting a $220-million condo tower that at 52 stories would outstretch any skyscraper in the region.
"You'll be amazed how fast we go from here," Patrick Sheppard, a local partner in what was being billed as Trump Tower Tampa, told the media at the time.
Today, to the casual eye, the 1 1/2-acre lot at 111 S Ashley Drive looks no more likely to sprout a luxury high-rise than it was a year ago. It's cleared, flattened, shrouded in construction fencing. Promises for a formal groundbreaking have been shoved back since early fall, along with the projected completion date, while the skyscraper's cost and price per condo have jumped.
Some buyers, while captivated by the Trump mystique, hanker for explanations as delay succeeds delay.
"They haven't really said why it hasn't broken ground, and we don't know either," said Alex Petro, a St. Petersburg chiropractor who has bought a $1.9-million, 12th-floor Trump penthouse.
Contractors pledge to begin laying steel pilings for the tower's foundation within two or three weeks. Then comes 33 months of vertical construction as Trump Tower rises to heights unmatched in West Florida.
"Things are still going very much forward," said Kevin Glenn of Turner Construction Co., the project's general contractor.
If developers are to make the proposed late 2008 grand opening, they can't afford many more postponements. If the project doesn't begin before April, it may not be finished until 2009.
The condominium's charter cites a 2008 completion, but it's unclear what effect a postponed opening would have on developers' obligations to buyers.
Slowing progress has been the largely invisible job of sinking drills underground to find stable bedrock for the pilings, Glenn said, though the sea wall on the Hillsborough is complete.
Delays in delivering The Donald for a symbolic but media-grabbing groundbreaking ceremony have added to the complications.
The New York mogul has been unable to fit the event into his schedule. If it isn't a big dig in another city that needs attention, it's personal stuff like the wedding of Trump's son, Donald Jr.
"We may not have a press event," Jill Cremer, vice president of development for the Trump organization in New York, said Tuesday. "Everyone's schedule is so tight."
From the outset, Tampa business and government leaders have held up the Trump project as a barometer for the redevelopment of the city center.
The tower isn't the first or even the biggest condo complex proposed. But Trump's national reputation means instant clout for a city conscious of living in Miami's shadow.
Located where the Hillsborough River meets the brackish channels leading to the Gulf of Mexico, the Trump site is a pivot point between business-heavy downtown and the up-and-coming Channelside entertainment and residential district.
Marvin Rose, who publishes a newsletter for residential developers, has been glum about a growing glut of condos in the Tampa Bay market.
But Trump's project, whose high-end buyers aren't as hurt by higher interest rates, looks more promising, Rose said.
"Just the Trump name alone was just a brilliant marketing move," Rose said. "It really separated them from the crowd."
Less smitten is Warren Weathers, Hillsborough County's deputy property appraiser. He sees investors driving most condo sales.
Until buyers emerge who want to live in the apartments, Weathers remains a skeptic.
"You've got to have an end user, not just speculation and hype," Weathers said.
Financially, Trump Tower looks to be a winner, even though the rising cost of labor and materials has jacked up its cost from about $220-million to $260-million.
Roughly three-quarters of the 190 units have sold, developers said. Buyers plunked down nonrefundable deposits representing 20 percent of purchase prices ranging from $1-million to $6.2-million.
Those sales pale in comparison to the near-sellout numbers announced during last year's reservation phase. But developers insist they're holding back units so they don't sell too cheaply.
The business team behind Trump Tower changed the past year. Of the five initial local investors, known collectively as SimDag/RoBel LLC, three remain.
Sheppard and Dr. Howard Howell, the "RoBel" part of the partnership, sold their stake to SimDag last fall.
"We never had any intention of getting out of the project," Sheppard said.
"SimDag wanted to manage and take control of the project and made us a very generous and fair offer, and we were agreeable to that."
Petro, the penthouse buyer, is watching and waiting, along with dozens of other buyers.
Some plan to live at what could be one of the region's most opulent addresses. Others, like Petro, are investors hoping Trump's brand generates big property appreciation.
"Will they finish? They'd better finish," Petro said. "They have a ton of money of ours."James Thorner can be reached at (813) 226-3313 or thornersptimes.com.HOW MUCH DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKESTrump Tower Tampa has changed significantly since the luxury project was proposed for a vacant downtown lot at 111 S Ashley Drive a year ago: 2005 2006Total project cost $220-million $260-millionOwnership Jody Simon, Frank Dagostino, Howell and Sheppard Robert Lyons, Howard Howell, sold their stake to the Patrick Sheppard, Donald Trump other local partnersMinimum priceof condo $700,000 $1-millionProjectedcompletion date 2007 2008 Sale 98 percent full 70 percent full (via early reservations in '05) (those who have subsequently gone to contract)Source: SimDag LLC