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He molds changing face of Dunedin

The city's shift is mostly credited to development director Robert Ironsmith.

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY
Published June 10, 2007


Robert Ironsmith, economic development director of Dunedin, is very proud of some of the city projects he has brought to fruition like Pioneer Park in downtown. He is plotting new strategies to keep the ambience and charm of downtown. He wants to unify the several styles of benches found downtown. He wants to revamp downtown parking. "I have to be creative," he said. "I have to create opportunity."
photo
[Joseph Garnett Jr. Times]
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DUNEDIN - Robert Ironsmith loves the chocolate bread pudding at Cafe Alfresco. It seems to never be available on the days he has lunch there, so earlier this month, he gave a waiter his phone number and told him to call when it is.

He's less fond of the blocky, red letters that spell out the restaurant's name. The sign meets city code but to Ironsmith it is more fitting on a major roadway, not the quaint village look of downtown Dunedin.

So as the man in charge of Dunedin's economic development, he is working to get Cafe Alfresco owner Peter Kreuziger to join the city's downtown facade program, where the city will match funds with the owner to come up with a new sign, one with more character.

Kreuziger said he agrees that the sign should fit with the rest of the city's character and that he'll work with the city to change it.

"I have nothing but good to say about Bob, " Kreuziger said. "He's responsive, he's conscientious, he's come to us with a number of requests and we always respond."

As Dunedin's downtown has transformed from a ghost town to a destination other cities wish to emulate, city leaders have given Ironsmith, 46, much of the credit.

"Twelve years ago downtown was definitely a different place and (Ironsmith) kind of was the ring leader of pulling all the different pieces of the puzzle together, " said Mayor Bob Hackworth.

Just last month city leaders gave the energetic, business savvy, 12-year city employee a 10 percent raise, a new title and his own department of Economic and Housing Development to run.

Commissioners and the city manager talked about the importance of retaining the bachelor from Long Island who had been recently courted by four other cities. (Ironsmith won't say which ones.) He has experience in both the private and public sector working for an engineering consultant, a development company, the Pinellas County Planning Council and the Pinellas County Community Development department before he was hired in Dunedin in 1995.

Ironsmith's success comes from a combination of traits. From an obsessive attention to detail - like opting for a sawtooth parking curb downtown rather than a straight, easier to maintain curb - to an amiable personality tailor-made for schmoozing out-of-town developers and local business owners.

"He's a very high-energy, can-do, positive individual, and those are really essential traits, particularly in an economic development person because they're salesmen, " said City Manager Robert DiSpirito said.

Now, as the Florida Legislature threatens to limit how much property tax local governments can collect, Ironsmith's role has taken center stage. With the new title and pay comes heightened expectations: Attract more businesses and housing options to expand Dunedin's tax base.

Ironsmith's influence is sprinkled through the city: From affordable single-family homes on Palmetto Street - a joint effort between the city, Pinellas County and the private, non-profit Tampa Bay Community Development Corporation - to Pioneer Park, the outdoor venue in the middle of downtown.

One of his most recent projects is the Gateway, a multimillion dollar, multiuse development planned for a piece of land on State Road 580 and Main Street. Among his tasks: Finding a boutique grocer, something citizen focus groups liked, to join other vendors in the mixed-use development.

Not everything has been a success, such as when Nielsen Media Research decided to relocate 1, 600 employees from Dunedin to Oldsmar in 2001, leaving a 17-acre commercial site on Patricia Avenue. Ironsmith found a buyer, St. Petersburg developer Grady Pridgen, in 2005, assuring property taxes for the city. Yet the property, which has the potential to employ hundreds of Dunedin residents, remains empty.

He says he doesn't cringe when he drives by the dormant lot.

"We'll get it going, " he says.

He wants to expand development beyond downtown and move to the State Road 580 corridor. "How do you make it a little more charming and still move cars?" he said. "I don't know all the answers yet."

Ironsmith, himself, isn't a Dunedin resident. He purchased a Palm Harbor condo near his mom, Marion Eisenschmied, in 1999 as she fought and beat cancer. The two are still neighbors.

His father also eventually moved to Florida and lives in Pasco County. But Ironsmith no longer shares his parents' German surname, having opted in 1991 to legally change it to the direct English translation. It's easier to spell and pronounce, he said.

As he drove through the city he has helped transform recently, he was already plotting new strategies to keep the ambiance and charm of downtown, especially as its success attracts national franchises. He wants to unify the several styles of benches found downtown. He wants to revamp downtown parking.

"I have to be creative, " he said. "I have to create opportunity."

[Last modified June 9, 2007, 19:39:09]


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