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Passion back to finish Main Street project

Public support encourages former New Port Richey Mayor Peter Altman to continue trying to build downtown's Main Street Landing.

By JODIE TILLMAN
Published July 4, 2006


 

NEW PORT RICHEY - It is a familiar story to downtowns everywhere: A business opens with high hopes, tries hard to make a go of it but never sees enough patrons to make it profitable.

But the recent closure of Spoonbills Restaurant carries an added layer of symbolism: It was owned by Peter Altman, a former New Port Richey mayor whose cornerstone Main Street Landing project is stalled at the moment - and right across the street.

"The food was good, but the prices were high," he said. "The difficulty was trying to incubate a business that required people with a little higher disposable income."

Those people did not come, and Altman can't wait for them to come from Main Street Landing, where construction has halted after the City Council's 3-2 vote last month against public financing for the mixed-use project, which was expected to jump-start downtown development.

Spoonbills - along with a now-defunct boat and bait shop that Altman also owned - lost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the lifelong city resident, who spent much of his nearly two decades in public office championing downtown redevelopment, even as population centers moved to the suburbs.

The day after the council vote, Altman was dejected about his prospects.

"It takes the wind out of my sails," he said then. "I'm not the right guy to do it. That's my lesson. I'd have been fine if I'd just been the idea guy."

But his optimism has returned. Encouraged by a public outcry over the Main Street Landing vote, Altman said he hopes the council will eventually embrace the proposal to use future tax revenue generated by the project to pay off about $6.7-million in bond financing.

"In all my years in office, I've seen a lot of public outrage for what people didn't want. Only one other time have I seen the case where people came out in support of something with the passion they have," he said. "Time heals all wounds. I would never empower any individual with the authority in my mind to demolish or save anything."

Altman has long been seen as a city visionary, who as mayor left his fingerprints on major projects like streetscaping and the purchase of the James E. Grey Preserve but also on failed plans like a children's museum.

Main Street Landing was a vision he had first, one that he saw as the accumulation of his career as a public official working on redevelopment issues. He shopped around for developers before eventually finding Ken McGurn of Gainesville, who is widely credited with helping turn that city around.

Here are the conundrums associated with the financing proposal for Main Street Landing:

Without Altman, the project would not have existed. With Altman, the project raised questions in the minds of longtime detractors.

Altman acknowledged being a "flash point" in the city and said someone once told him, "People either love you or they hate you."

But he said he thinks the criticisms come from a vocal minority that predicted his failure before he started.

"They have been telling each other how sure they are about me, that they believe it, how sure they are I'm motivated by some self-interest.

"It's been apparent to me that there's no profit in it," Altman said. "But I am still passionate about seeing it happen because it's what I've worked for all these years."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.