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Given the right sales job, Civitas could win

By MARY JO MELONE
Published January 18, 2004

In a perfect world, there would have been more time to explain to people what Civitas stood for and what it meant.

Instead, there was just six weeks. Tampa and Hillsborough County officials were forced into a corner.

Somebody was bound to object to this pressure. And somebody did.

Twice, on Thursday and Friday, the County Commission voted against Civitas, the multimillion-dollar dream of a score of developers to rebuild two public housing complexes and other land, a total of 157 acres, between downtown Tampa and Ybor City.

From the outside, it appeared that the developers were trying to ram the thing through without scrutiny. But the developers insisted their intent was honorable, even though they had been secretly buying up land for two years.

Working in secret had the advantage of holding down land prices. But it also fueled understandable suspicions about the developers' real motives when they finally went public in December.

Within days, they were working with the Tampa Housing Authority to get a federal grant for the project. The deadline to mail an application for the money was Saturday, which pushed the city and county to the wall.

County Commission Chairman Tom Scott said the project was a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. And it's true that Tampa has never seen anything of this scope or magnitude.

But Civitas was reminiscent of other projects that were born of the dreams of millionaires who thought they knew best and wanted things done as they saw fit, on their timetable and, sooner or later, with government help.

Name almost any of the projects that people thought would move Tampa into the big leagues of America's cities: the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the Florida Aquarium, the St. Pete Times Forum. The businessmen didn't have to be making a profit, as the Glazers did with Raymond James Stadium. The projects needed tax money, and the need for it generated public resentment.

Given this history, officials couldn't be blamed for being skeptical. Skepticism is what led Mayor Pam Iorio to extract concessions from the developers. She didn't want the public to end up on the hook if Civitas stumbled.

The developers, led by former County Commissioner and Olympics promoter Ed Turanchik, now are huffing that the deal is dead. It sounds as if they have decided to take their marbles and go home.

Turanchik and company have an opportunity, and they ought to seize it. They have said they don't need the federal grant to go forward. So they could just start over again with the rest of their project. They could start by doing more to sell Civitas to the public. Doing so might go far to ease the commission's suspicions and those of suburban voters who don't see why they should care about the city, period.

The developers could go back to the commission and take up where they left off. To go forward, the project needs county approval of a special tax package.

Would it be impossible to persuade the commission? If the answer turned out to be yes, the commission would reveal itself to be as small-minded as Turanchik suggested after the plan was rejected.

The commission would show itself to be biased against the poor, as one of Turanchik's project partners, Bill Bishop, said it was. It would be easier for critics to holler that ugly word, "racism," and say the commission has contempt for those who live in the neighborhood that Civitas would revitalize.

No, the story of Civitas is not over yet. It just wasn't as easy as Turanchik, Bishop and the rest of the investors who were willing to put millions of dollars into the project hoped it would be.

Civitas will not happen on their terms and on their schedule. And it really shouldn't.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at mjmelone@sptimes.com or 226-3402.

[Last modified January 18, 2004, 01:01:02]


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