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Officials vow to fast-track Schiller move

City commissioners are going out of their way to help Schiller International University move to the old Hospice of the Florida Suncoast property on East Bay Drive as soon as possible.

At Tuesday night's City Commission meeting, Largo leaders unanimously voted to support any legal means to expedite the process.

The vote came despite the opinion of the city's staff that an "institutional" use like Schiller doesn't match the rules for the area.

But Schiller administrators welcomed the assistance.

"We were absolutely thrilled with that 7 to zip vote," said Normajeanne Anderson, a spokeswoman for developer Sam Hall, who represents the campus.

Still, Schiller president Walter Leibrecht said the university is keeping its options open and considering an unspecified property in Clearwater because it is unsure it will get official approval for the Largo property.

"We need to make a decision soon." Leibrecht said. "Students and teachers and staff are asking "Where are we going to be.' "

Schiller, which sold its Dunedin property to developer and lawyer George Rahdert three weeks ago, needs a new location and wants to buy the property on East Bay. But that site is in the West Bay Drive Community Redevelopment District, which is designated for offices, homes and stores.

Rahdert, who represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues, paid $8-million for Schiller's property on Edgewater Drive. He is working on a plan to redevelop the campus into a resort hotel.

To fit into a new home in Largo's mixed-use district, Schiller plans to fortify its new campus with a restaurant, a bookstore and possibly a visitors center for the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce. But Community Development director Mike Staffopoulos and City Manager Steve Stanton said those additions wouldn't be enough to give the building mixed-use status.

Commissioners weren't swayed, though, and their decision may have shaved months off the approval process. Changing the land use and redevelopment code would have taken six to nine months. Schiller representatives said that was too long to wait.

City staff said Tuesday the approval process could now take 60 to 90 days, but Stanton said the university could get the green light within a week if it prepares a technical presentation and persuades the planning board that the university belongs there. The planning board meets March 2.

"If the board approves it, they're off to the races," Stanton said.

If not, the university could appeal to the commission, which could make a decision within two or three weeks, Stanton said.

The outcome of those proceedings will likely hinge on the merits of Schiller's presentation and if the university can prove its vision is consistent with the redevelopment plan.

While the commission's decision was unanimous, Mayor Bob Jackson was the university's most ardent advocate. Jackson, whose re-election campaign received $500 from Schiller's representative Sam Hall, has been talking with Schiller since last year when its leaders expressed an interest in moving into the old Largo library building.

Commissioner Gay Gentry expressed support for Schiller, but urged university leaders to provide more specifics about the amenities they plan to offer.

"I don't think we need another sandwich shop and I don't think we need another pawn shop. But I do think there would be an element of elegance to have a college there, to have the things they would bring in," Gentry said.

Times staff writer Vanessa de la Torre contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com.

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