Downtown Oldsmar project in limbo

Published May 21, 2007

OLDSMAR - State lawmakers' inability to agree on the best way to cut property taxes has stymied just about everyone, including members of the Oldsmar City Council.

They were hoping the proposed tax rollback that would have drained money from city budgets would have been decided by now. But the Florida Legislature put off the decision until June, when it will meet for a special session.

"It's hard for us to do any kind of business because of the unknown, " Mayor Jim Ronecker said recently. "As a homeowner, business owner and mayor, it's extremely frustrating."

Example: On May 7, the council met to discuss the future of Olds Square, currently proposed as a 505, 250-square-foot mixed-use project and hailed as the signature piece of downtown redevelopment.

The $100-million project will probably include retail and office space, residential apartments and a hotel, plus about 350, 000-square-feet of parking, in a plaza-like setting, just east of City Hall on State Street.

"We aren't in agreement with everything, " City Manager Bruce Haddock said at the start of the meeting. "There are hurdles."

Those sticking points - building heights and incentives from the city - are the things standing in the way of a signed contract, he said.

But how can a city offer incentives that may not be available?

The Tax Increment Financing program is a state program, administered by cities, that offers incentives to spark redevelopment. The future of the program - which siphons property tax revenue that would otherwise flow to a city's operating budget - depends on what happens in June.

In this case, Doug Weiland, chief executive officer of JES Properties, the developer, indicated that he would like an 18-percent share of future property tax revenues from the project for any public facilities, such as parking, that he might build.

"We need for the project to be financially feasible, " said Weiland, who developed the Oldsmar Galleria.

He said that since developers first began bidding on the project two years ago, both costs and entrepreneurial risks have risen. And, the condominium market has dried up.

"Now we have changed it to apartments and a hotel, " he said.

The hotel, currently proposed at 10 stories, is another dicey subject.

Council member Janice Miller was adamant that a 10-story hotel would not go up near her neighborhood. Other hotels in the area are four stories high, she said, "and they are making it."

Council member Suzanne Vale agreed.

"Ten stories is way too high, " she said.

The current zoning allows for six.

So the council's task is to make the project blend in with the city's small-town look and feel and yet make it risk tolerant for JES. All the while, the council doesn't know what bargaining chips it may have in the future.

After an hour of discussion, council members indicated they might consider providing some kind of money in exchange for height reductions.

Ronecker concluded, "We should wait until after June and see what Tallahassee does."

Afterward, Weiland said he was sure a compromise will be reached - no matter what happens.

"We're going to move forward in partnership with the city to find a good solution to give Oldsmar a revitalized downtown, " he said.

Meanwhile, Mike Monahan, vice president of business assistance for the Upper Tampa Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, who watched the meeting, fretted that indecisiveness in Tallahassee could make it more difficult to attract people and businesses to Florida.

"This whole thing can send a very dangerous signal nationwide pertaining to the economic development of the state, " he said.