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Waterfront land buy comes with funding what-ifs

If Dunedin can't find the money to purchase the Weaver property as planned, it will try Plan B.

By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
Published August 24, 2006

DUNEDIN - The city is moving forward with plans to buy a prominent swath of waterfront property from J.C. Weaver, the millionaire businessman, country music songwriter and Virginia rancher.

Dunedin is negotiating a contract worth about $17.5-million, said acting City Manager Harry Gross.

Seventeen-and-a-half million big ones. How does a small town fund that? It's a question that has worried some city officials and elected leaders, even as they consider the purchase a rare opportunity for Dunedin to secure 7 acres of prime property and convert it into a park.

"The city should enjoy this land," Weaver said in an interview last month. He feels the area doesn't need anymore high-rise condos.

The land is just north of downtown and lies on both sides of Bayshore Boulevard, near Pershing Street.

On the west side, the property has a wide waterfront view of St. Joseph Sound and Caladesi Island, and has a 100-foot private pier that Weaver says he built himself. Walking across it, a visitor can peer over the sides and see dozens of mullet, snook and trout.

The deal would include another 7 acres that are underwater.

To the east of Bayshore Boulevard, the land is mostly vacant, with green grass and old trees. Notably, it abuts the Pinellas Trail.

Last month, Dunedin city commissioners voted unanimously to pursue the land purchase. They expressed enthusiasm, but also some what-ifs.

Among the key questions raised at the July 20 meeting was a sweaty-palms scenario known as Plan B. This would involve the city paying about $11-million, instead of a projected net cost of $3.1-million if everything goes as planned.

This is what happens if everything goes as planned, according to city officials:

The city will fund the grand bulk of the project with two major grants over two years from the Florida Communities Trust, a state land acquisition program through the Department of Community Affairs.

For the first round of funding, the city has applied for $6.6-million. The state will decide next month which applicants will be awarded money. The competition can be stiff: Last year, grants were given to 33 land acquisition projects. Roughly 42 applications were denied.

This year, the Florida Communities Trust received 115 applications. Among Dunedin's competitors are a 19-acre dog park in Wellington and a 766-acre river preserve in Pasco County.

If Dunedin's application is denied, "we can walk away at that point," said Gross, the city manager. The Weaver contract is "contingent on us getting that funding."

But assuming that Dunedin gets the $6.6-million, the deal is on. And the contract will require that the city pay the whole sum up front.

Then next year, the city will apply for another $6.6-million, Gross said.

Now for the big, window-shattering, violin-shrieking "Ahhhh!" Plan B: What if the city doesn't get that second round of funding? What then? Will it have to dump other planned projects to come up with the money? How will it deal with the interest on owing millions more than anticipated?

City staff had planned on presenting the Weaver contract at Thursday's city commission meeting. However, the city's Board of Finance is still working on the answers to that scenario.

Now Gross expects to present the contract to elected leaders at the Sept. 21 meeting. At that point, the city will know for sure whether it gets the first major grant.

The city also plans on applying for four smaller grants at $200,000 each over the next two years.

One thing is certain: If the purchase is made, the land will be named Josiah Cephas Weaver Park.

It's in the contract.

[Last modified August 23, 2006, 20:16:02]


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