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Villas developer hoped for $3-million

Many dignitaries say they are not invited to the groundbreaking scheduled today.

By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 28, 2002


Many dignitaries say they are not invited to the groundbreaking scheduled today.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The man behind the $75.7-million Villas project on the St. Petersburg waterfront planned to pay himself $3-million for developing the retail-condominium complex, according to a project budget.

The budget is part of a 30-page prospectus that Morris Development Group LLC used several months ago in an attempt to secure financing for the project.

The prospectus, a copy of which was obtained Friday by the St. Petersburg Times, also includes color drawings of the site plan and the proposed buildings.

Morris Development founder Paul Koehler Morris did not return calls Friday seeking further details about the budget and prospectus.

Morris, 54, founded Morris Development when he moved to St. Petersburg after filing personal bankruptcy in California in 1999. He has no documented real estate development experience, having worked previously as a set dresser and independent artist in Los Angeles.

Yet he has proposed one of the largest projects in city history: two 20-story condominium towers, each containing more than 200 units, atop three stories of retail and commercial space and a parking garage.

The invitation-only groundbreaking for the project is scheduled for 6 p.m. today. Contacted on Friday, numerous elected officials, leaders of business organizations and even members of the family leasing the land for the project said they were not on the guest list.

The budget estimates a total project cost of about $75.7-million, including a financing cost of $3.6-million. About $58.3-million would go to general contractor Beers Skanska. Another $13.7-million would go to "soft costs" such as the developer fee, $3.75-million for architecture and engineering and $1.5-million in land lease payments to the Hamilton family, which owns the site.

Morris agreed to pay the family two payments of around $250,000 twice per year. He made the first payment, according to the family, and the second is due Monday. The family was still awaiting it Friday.

Morris said Tuesday that he has obtained financing from a "registered banking entity" out of state. He would not identify it. He received a $250,000 loan from a partnership with local investors in May, public records show.

In addition to budget details and color drawings, the prospectus includes a sales pitch:

"Land is a precious commodity. Perhaps because it is so finite. And land that laps the water's gentile (sic) edge -- is valued most. For here, inspired by transcendent vistas of the Bay the calm is felt, that all is right with the world. The Villas, prime waterfront property that while far from the rush and roar of major streets, lies just steps from the civilities of urban living."

The prospectus also includes a biography of Morris. It states:

"My responsibilities have ranged from new project development, to design of projects, interfacing with state and local governments on land use, zoning and permits, and supervising projects to completion. . . . Further, I have over 25 years of experience in every type and field of construction, development and management."

Morris also listed several clients in his biography, such as the Nike Corp., Turtle Records, Universal Studios, Knotts Berry Farm and the De Bartlo Corp.

On Tuesday, Morris told the Times that for the past 10 years he had been involved in real estate development.

An employment history he gave under penalty of perjury in a 1999 lawsuit lists no real estate experience. It lists miscellaneous jobs such as short stints at California theme parks as a set designer, work at a temporary service and lengthy self-employment as an artist.

He also operated a cookie dough business in Atlanta in the late 1980s.

City Council member Bill Foster said it was unusual for the developer of such a large project not to invite elected officials to his groundbreaking.

"It would have been nice to have been included in such a project that will have an impact on my city or my skyline," he said.

Jillian Rondinone of Chenoweth and Faulkner Advertising in Tampa has handled public relations for the project. She said she thought elected officials were to be invited to tonight's event. Her firm designed an invitation that Morris was to send to his guests.

"I don't know for sure who is invited," she said.

A public event in which children will paint murals on the project's construction fence is scheduled for 9 a.m. today.

-- Bryan Gilmer can be reached at gilmer@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8848.

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