What began as an eviction lawsuit filed by the City of St. Petersburg, intended to boot a local developer from city-owned land, has led to a hefty price tag for the municipality.
In a Tuesday ruling, Pinellas County Civil Court Judge Lorraine Kelly ordered St. Petersburg to pay the developer, former mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons, and his firm TLM Investment Group I LLC, $3,095,920 in damages stemming from a disputed violation of a lease agreement.
In 2014, Gibbons and TLM entered a contract with the city to develop two acres of land in the Midtown area, near the southeast corner of 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street. The project was to include a gas station, convenience store, soul food restaurant and medical services building that was to open by the end of 2018.
When TLM asked for an extension in June 2017, council members set May 1, 2018 as the deadline for “initial construction.” Upon that deadline, TLM had cleared the land for construction, but had yet to start building. City officials didn’t consider clearing the land to meet the definition of “initial construction” and terminated the lease.
After the city filed an eviction suit against TLM in late 2018, Gibbons and the firm brought a countersuit against the city alleging he was treated unfairly and had been wrongfully evicted. In an initial ruling in April 2020, Kelly agreed.
“Had the contract term been merely ‘construction,’ the City’s argument would carry more weight and their case law would be more compelling,” Kelly wrote then.
Seventeen months later, the $3.1 million Kelly ordered the city to pay TLM reflected the profits Gibbons and his firm projected had been lost because the lease had been terminated.
In a text message to the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday, Gibbons said TLM made multiple attempts to settle the case with the city and “the city repeatedly refused to make any meaningful counteroffers.”
Gibbons has asserted that the eviction was retaliation against him for being Republican and supporting the 2017 campaign of fellow Republican and former Mayor Rick Baker in Baker’s bid to unseat Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat.
“The judge recognized that was fundamentally wrong, and now taxpayers will have to pay for their lack of judgment and failure to act in the best interests of the neighborhoods that need the most help, ”Gibbons said.
Kriseman didn’t respond to a request for comment. City spokesman Ben Kirby wrote in an email that the city has no comment “while the mayor and the City’s legal office review the ruling.”
Council Member Robert Blackmon — who is running for mayor against Ken Welch — was the only council member to respond to interview requests. Blackmon, a Republican, called the loss “fiscally irresponsible.”
“We pulled back land that was going to be developed over political favoritism. It’s the worst of politics,” said Blackmon, who resigned his seat on council, effective Jan. 5, 2022, so he could run for mayor. The runoff election is Nov. 2.
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Welch, a Democrat who has been endorsed by Kriseman, did not respond to a request for comment.