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    Available now: one downtown

    Largo lays the groundwork, investing millions downtown. Now it's developers' job to help turn the area around. A deal at old city hall may be just the ticket.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 2, 2002


    LARGO -- Steven Stanton anticipated the question. How could he not?

    It has taken Largo more than five years and nearly $13-million. West Bay Drive has been widened and adorned with fancy street lights. Officials have drawn up the plans and maps for massive redevelopment.

    So why is the city's magical vision of a Main Street, a vibrant downtown teeming with pedestrians carrying plenty of disposable cash, obscured by the present picture of empty storefronts?

    "The collective observer would gather nothing is happening, that there's no interest," said Stanton. "It's just the opposite."

    Stanton says he expects the windfall to begin this month. His staff is gearing up for what ultimately may end up being the most crucial real estate deal in Largo's history, an agreement with Hyde Park Builders to purchase the former city hall and open the floodgates to private development downtown.

    And if it doesn't happen? If the city's dormant downtown doesn't change?

    "If a year from now we see what we see now, we will have failed," said Stanton. "All the conditions are ripe. It's an exciting time."

    It all comes down to the Tampa developer's tentative agreement with Stanton's community development team over the former city hall property. The deal is expected to go before city commissioners June 18, said city officials and a representative of Hyde Park Builders.

    If approved, Hyde Park Builders expects to invest more than $15-million to put 52 townhomes and 30,000 square feet of retail space on 8 prime acres of property.

    Potential investors are watching this deal, which could serve as the catalyst to inspire a wave of redevelopment, Stanton said.

    Scott Shimberg, executive vice president for Hyde Park Builders, said his company doesn't need to wait for others to prove Largo's value. He's eager to present the deal this month.

    "We've always felt that the Largo community represents everything the real estate market is based on: location, location, location," said Shimberg. "The Largo community is fairly untapped . . . a central location to access work centers, the beach and highways. It's got extreme potential from a redevelopment standpoint."

    Terms of the tentative agreement were not made available as attorneys for both sides continue negotiating fine points.

    But Stanton confirmed some critical points the two parties have discussed. The city may accelerate its plans for two improvements in the area: building a pedestrian walkway to connect Largo Central Park and the Bayhead Complex over Seminole Boulevard, and installing underground utility lines. He also said Hyde Park wants to haggle over the property's price, which is currently assessed at nearly $2-million, and has asked to have some impact fees waived.

    "Largo is an unproven market," Stanton said. "They are willing to invest the money. But they want some concessions, primarily on the value of the property."

    Mayor Bob Jackson said he hesitates at handing Hyde Park Builders the key to the city. From what he has seen, the developer is getting a pretty sweet deal. But he understands the city's future may depend on it.

    "It will be quite a subsidy," said Jackson. "We are hoping to look back 10 years from now and say it was a good move. The big thing is to get community input. Hopefully, it will turn out all right."

    The Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce supports Hyde Park's proposal, even though it had initially expressed concerns about plans for limited commercial development. Chairman Keith Bailey said it's the best deal the city can expect. But the city should not feel pressured to buckle under negotiations.

    "We don't care to see the city give away the store," said Bailey. "We understand if it does not happen, because negotiations become unreasonable, we will not blame the city for not proceeding with development at any cost."

    Ric Goss, the city's community development director, said five years is not a lot of time, considering it took nearly 25 years for downtown to decline into the current state.

    He did allow that the city's leadership may have raised the public's expectations. But he anticipates huge rewards for those who take note of Largo's potential and looks forward to bringing the development agreement to the commission June 18.

    "Maybe we presented something to the people that raised their expectation higher than it should have been," said Goss. "They are high, and the community can meet them. It's just getting them there."

    One obstacle has been selling the vision to the owners of nearby property. A deal with Hyde Park could motivate them into renting empty storefronts or selling properties that are being used for storage. It also might persuade a few to fix up their facades.

    That would help Terry Moore. As manager of the Downtown Largo Main Street Association, she has been busy trying to sell those ideas to current and prospective business owners along West Bay Drive.

    "I get six to eight calls a month from people inquiring about property downtown," Moore said. "Part of it is that properties that are empty, (the landlords) don't want to rent them. They don't tell you they don't want to rent them. They just don't give you a price."

    Lee Arnold, chief executive of one of Tampa Bay's largest commercial real estate brokerage companies, said the city has taken every step required to redevelop a deteriorating urban core. He points to the decision to move the city hall away in order to free up 8 prime acres downtown. His firm, Colliers Arnold, represented the property owner that sold Largo its new city hall.

    Arnold notes the street improvements and the incentives being offered to property owners willing to fix up their storefronts.

    "They are doing things to create a development area," said Arnold. "The challenge, the forward thinking challenge, is how to get the real estate in play that meets community desires and standards. They really want something that is hard to put together, but when put together, does create a very appealing, synergistic redevelopment area."

    "They are trying," said Arnold.

    -- Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or sandler@sptimes.com.

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