ST. PETERSBURG — Deveron Gibbons, whose company signed an agreement in 2014 to develop a 2-acre city-owned site near Perkins Elementary School, is fighting eviction.
Gibbons, an Amscot Financial executive, and his childhood friend and business partner, Doug Cobarras, had plans for the 2100 18th Ave. S property that included a gas station, convenience store, soul food restaurant and a medical services building. The project promised as many as 20 jobs.
Now, though, Gibbons, Cobarras and their company, TLM Investment Group 1, are locked in a legal dispute with the city, which wants to repossess the vacant property across from Tangerine Plaza, where a Sweetbay Supermarket closed in 2013 and a Walmart Neighborhood Market closed in 2017.
The city terminated the lease on Aug. 31, 2018, and gave TLM 15 days to give up the property and remove its signs from the premises.
In his firm's countersuit, Gibbons, who once ran for mayor, claims the city's action is a retaliation against him for being Republican and supporting the 2017 campaign of fellow Republican and former Mayor Rick Baker. Baker had sought to unseat Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat. The lawsuit claims "discrimination, bias and dislike for one or more principals" of TLM.
The suit also says the city has treated TLM differently from others in similar situations, allowing other projects to proceed without being terminated.
Gibbons, a St. Petersburg College trustee, referred questions to his lawyer, Howard P. Ross, who did not respond to requests left at his office Tuesday.
The city and TLM disagree about what took place at a pivotal City Council meeting last August. Alan DeLisle, the city's development administrator, wrote in background material for a proposed resolution that TLM was in violation of its contract and asked council members to either agree to an amended contract or terminate the agreement.
The city, in its lawsuit, says the council declined to approve the amendment. TLM's suit interprets the council's actions differently. The council, the company's suit says, did not approve the termination of TLM's agreement.
TLM first signed a contract to lease and develop the property in December 2014. The firm asked for an extension to the agreement in June 2017. Council members set a Jan. 31, 2018, deadline for the company to secure financing and a May 1, 2018, date to begin construction. The project was supposed to be complete and open for business on Dec. 31 2018.
The city maintains that construction did not begin by May 1 as agreed and sent a default letter telling TLM that it was in violation of its agreement.
"While preparation for construction, in the form of lot and tree clearing, may have occurred ... the agreement required construction to begin by May 1, not merely preparation for construction," the city's letter said.
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TLM disagrees. Its lawsuit claims "visible commencement of operations took place no later than May 1, 2018." It went on to quote a city email from April 27, 2018, that advised, "If you pick up the approved building permit today you can start moving debris, dirt, etc., immediately to comply with your contract."
Besides seeking TLM's eviction, the city is asking for damages, including fees, costs and attorneys' fees.
TLM is asking for damages including for wrongful eviction and wrongful termination of the agreement and lost profits. At the August 2018 meeting, TLM consultant Angelo Cappelli told council members that Gibbons and Cobarras had already spent $80,000 on "soft costs" for the project.
On Jan. 4, the city filed a proposal for a settlement. TLM responded with its own proposal on Jan. 21. Mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby declined to give details.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.