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    Officials: Move benefits downtown

    The museum's move and building sale are just the next steps in St. Petersburg's downtown growth, they say.

    By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 4, 2002

    ST. PETERSBURG -- In the mid 1990s, the city spent millions fixing up a derelict downtown department store for the Florida International Museum.

    Now the city wants to tear it down.

    Mayor Rick Baker says the payoff from the latest plans for the old Maas Brothers department store will come in the continued growth of downtown.

    "We cannot get all our money back. But we did this to stimulate economic development downtown," Baker said.

    City officials envision selling the 220,000-square foot former Maas Brothers department store to developers who would build a high-rise condo/office/hotel complex with ground-floor retailing.

    But they don't expect to ever get back much of the $6-million in taxpayers' money poured into the project, much less the $10-million put in private contributions. Of that $10-million, $8.3-million came from retired mutual fund executive John Galbraith, $250,000 from Florida Progress Corp. and $950,000 from the Times Publishing Co.

    The details of disengaging the museum from the building are going to take up to two years.

    "I think it's going to be three to five years before we can put the property up for bids," said City Council member John Bryan. "Actually the longer, the better. This property is only going to get more valuable."

    The city officials who put together the plans unveiled Friday were enticed by a $4-million price tag fetched for a similar-sized chunk of vacant land near the museum. They hope to get at least that for the old Maas Brothers store, along with getting the property back on the tax roll when a private buyer comes along.

    Baker, a chairman of the museum board before he was mayor, made his priority finding a solution for the long-struggling museum that is running short of cash.

    "It struck me that the museum is sitting on a gold mine," said the mayor. He proposes to put up for bids the roughly 2 acres fronting First Avenue N between Second and Third Streets. Museum officials say several investors have checked the museum building out for its redevelopment potential in the past year. Many "approached us about buying, but all we could do was refer them to the city," said Kathy Oathout, a museum vice president.

    Commercial real estate brokers concur downtown St. Petersburg real estate has made an impressive comeback since the retail success of BayWalk, a budding night-life scene and sales of pricey townhouses and condos.

    "Downtown St. Petersburg is a great spot for mixed-use, new urbanism projects that are working now in places like downtown Orlando," said Pat Duffy, president of Colliers Arnold, a commercial real estate brokerage and retail leasing firm in Clearwater. "Given the human scale and look of downtown, they really fit the setting."

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