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State aid for Dunedin park is unlikely

A state agency says that the waterfront park proposal didn't score high enough to be funded.

Published September 1, 2006

DUNEDIN - J.C. Weaver wanted to sell his waterfront property to the city, and the city was eager to have it, though not without some major help: The 7-acre deal was contingent on getting a $6.6-million state grant this month.

But the city has learned this week that its application to the Florida Communities Trust, a state land acquisition program, will most certainly be denied.

The news came as a shock to city officials, who were banking on this grant, and then a second $6.6-million grant next year, to fund the bulk of the $17.5-million purchase. They wanted to convert the land into a public park.

Does this pretty much kill the deal? Acting City Manager Harry Gross said: "Unless we can find a significant source of funding, it very likely has."

"Not receiving that first grant really puts the deal in jeopardy," City Commissioner Deborah Kynes said Thursday. "And you know what, I'm really thankful that we know now that we didn't get that first grant. It changes the rules of engagement."

When the Dunedin City Commission voted unanimously in July to pursue the Weaver purchase, elected leaders considered it a rare shot to secure prime property normally snagged by private developers. The land is north of downtown and lies on both sides of Bayshore Boulevard, near Pershing Street.

The west side has a vast waterfront view of St. Joseph Sound and Caladesi Island, and includes a 100-foot pier and another 7 acres underwater. The east side is mostly grassy with trees and abuts the Pinellas Trail.

Weaver, a millionaire businessman, country music songwriter and Dunedin resident since 1960, said he hated the idea of his land being developed into concrete and high-rise condos, and wanted to work with the city to make the park happen.

But questions over funding remained, even as Gross, the city manager, told city commissioners that Weaver's property had the features needed to win competitive state grants. If the city had been awarded all the grant money it expected, the projected net cost to Dunedin would have been $3.1-million.

Vice Mayor Dave Eggers, in a memo to Gross, expressed "strong concerns that we are buying an overpriced property." There was also this hair-raising scenario called Plan B: What if the city got the first state grant, went ahead and signed the $17.5-million contract, and then didn't get that second grant?

Now it looks like Plan A has been ripped to shreds. The competition is steep. This year, the Florida Communities Trust had a record 115 applicants, all of whom wanted a record number of dollars: more than $240-million.

The Trust, a program though the Department of Community Affairs, typically offers $66-million each year. Each application is scored, and the highest scores get the money.

Dunedin's score was 110. In past years, an acceptable score was around 145. In this year's crowded field, that bell-ringing number was estimated at roughly 160.

"At 110, we weren't even close," Gross said.

Ken Reecy, director of the Florida Communities Trust, said Thursday that he wasn't completely ruling out Dunedin, because a special board still needs to meet this month and make the final decisions.

But it wasn't looking good. "There are a lot of good projects that aren't getting funding anymore," Reecy said. "They may have in the past, but not now, with rising real estate values."

With the costs of land acquisition moving up, applicants generally ask for more money than the program has.

There are also a few things that could have given the Weaver application a higher score, Reecy said. Among them: offering more matching funds. Dunedin offered 35 percent, whereas many applicants were in the 50-percent range.

Reecy also said the proposed Josiah Cephas Weaver Park didn't appear to have "user-oriented" features, such as a playground, volleyball and shuffleboard courts.

"I'm actually a little surprised to hear that," Gross said. He thought the state usually went for passive parks. "But he's the director of the agency and knows more about it than I do."

Mayor Bob Hackworth said Thursday that he wasn't giving up. He wants confirmation that the city's application score was 110. And then, if the news is true, try the grant again next year, or find another way to keep the property from slipping into the hands of a private developer.

"I was very excited about the deal," Hackworth said. "Obviously, it was essential that we get the grant because the dollars weren't in the city's resources.

"But the reasons for wanting it are still there," he continued. Such as getting that public access to the waterfront.

Eggers, the vice mayor, had a different take on the situation.

"Frankly, from my perspective, this gives us a little pause and time to think if we need additional parkland. And if yes, where?" Eggers said. He felt the proposed deal had more questions than answers, was too expensive, and was being rushed forward.

"I was not overly disappointed that this did not happen," he said of the grant.

Gross said Weaver is going to wait 30 days before putting his land on the market again, to give the city time to look for other options.

But at this point, said Gross, "I'm not too sure what those options will be."

[Last modified August 31, 2006, 22:12:01]

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