tampabay.com

Tarpon leaders weigh plans and strike balance

By Times editorial
Published June 27, 2007


Tarpon Springs city commissioners are being unfairly criticized for refusing to open negotiations with an individual who proposed a $700-million project on the Anclote River opposite the Sponge Docks.

The four commissioners who voted "no" - Mayor Beverley Billiris, David Archie, Robin Saenger and Chris Alahouzos - are being accused of failing to support the struggling merchants and property owners in the Sponge Docks area and especially the river's north side.

However, their vote against Jerry Fletcher's proposal reflected their gut feeling that something wasn't right about the plan. It would have been irresponsible for them to vote "yes."

Fletcher, a Lake City resident, first came to the City Commission June 5 with a concept for a massive redevelopment project that would include an 84-foot-tall resort hotel catering to the wealthy, docks for yachts up to 165 feet long, and 200 to 300 berths in a high-and-dry boat storage facility.

As the St. Petersburg Times reported June 17, Fletcher has presented other grand ideas that sparkled and then went poof! Some sources interviewed by the Times accused Fletcher of defrauding them or not following through on plans that initially attracted investors.

So when Fletcher came back to Tarpon commissioners last week asking them to enter into a development agreement with him, their correct instinct was to back away. They did not have proof that Fletcher could deliver on such an enormous project, and attempting to negotiate a development agreement under such circumstances could cost the city much time and money and go for naught.

The commissioners' vote does not mean that they are anti-redevelopment, or that they have stuck their heads in the sand when it comes to the real challenges of merchants and property owners along the river. Commissioners illustrated their interest in improving the area by agreeing to advance a different redevelopment proposal by well-known and proven local developers.

The Menna family, experienced hotel developers in the area, wants to build a hotel/retail/restaurant project just south of Dodecanese Boulevard at the intersection of Hill and Roosevelt streets.

The development, which would include an 80-room Hilton Homewood Suites hotel, would be called Santorini by the Sponge Docks.

The developers have only an outline of the project at this point, and are still months from having a full site plan for city review, but the project concept is much more appropriate for the Sponge Docks area in size and scale.

While the initial building design shown to the City Commission last week could use some tweaking to make it a better match for the Greek-themed area of the docks, the project promises to be a draw for tourists and locals alike, with shopping and restaurants a part of the plan.

It isn't easy for elected officials to oppose a project that has support from prominent residents. These four commissioners withstood the pressure and made the right decision.