tampabay.com

Economic health: still robust here

That's the assessment of three city leaders, who point to many positive signs.

By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 9, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - While Washington considers an economic stimulus, city officials here say all's well economically.

"We still are in the midst of the renaissance of the city," said Dave Goodwin, the city's economic development director. "There's a downturn, but it's not affecting us like other communities."

Goodwin sat last week with Mayor Rick Baker and development services director Julie Weston to discuss the health of the city's economy. They announced a handful of positive signs and new opportunities.

- Baker said the Grand Bohemian hotel will break ground in April with 292 hotel rooms and 22 condominiums.

- SRI should begin construction of its new facilities this year.

- The expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts and its exhibit and restaurant facilities should open next month, and the new Dali museum should begin construction this year.

- The new ValPak factory is gearing up to go online this year.

- A new Home Depot and Wal-Mart will start rising this year on 34th Street.

- Albert Whitted Airport's new terminal recently opened.

Along with other developments around the city, and despite a declining residential real estate market, the economic signs are strong, they said.

"There still seems to be a lot of interest in other types of development," Baker said. "In addition to buildings, we're trying to build amenities."

Baker said he wants to be sure success in the city is spread around. While eyes are often on downtown, there is plenty of activity in the Tyrone area, in Carillon, and in the western and southern parts of the city.

"This is going to be a great year for Midtown," he said.

Baker said the long-awaited bank for Midtown is going to begin construction in the next few months on the southwest corner of 22nd Street and 18th Avenue S. The complicated deal will have developer Larry Newsome own the SunTrust banking and office building, which is financed by BB&T with tax credits provided by Fifth Third Bank.

Across 22nd Street, another commercial center will rise with a gas station, convenience store, carwash and fast-food restaurant.

A Family Dollar store will go up nearby, and the old Jordan Park Elementary School will be transformed into a Head Start facility, Baker said.

"We want all parts of the city to do well," he said.

On Midtown's northern fringe is the Dome Industrial Park, a 120-acre area the city assembled from multiple landowners. Goodwin said the area is ripe with possibility - an enterprise zone with brownfield credits available, zoned industrial, vacant and adjacent to an interstate highway - that will become more attractive when the city adds a Job Corps facility there this year.

The condo craze that fed the city's growth in the past several years has subsided, but not before fueling four straight years of increasing construction value, culminating in last year's $635-million tally.

While that number is expected to drop, several dormant projects could spring back to life.

"Land is valuable, so people modify their plans in today's circumstances to make it work," said Weston. "There are several projects that we don't expect to happen, but every time we say that, somebody comes and shocks the dickens out of us."

Richard Kessler made modifications on Grand Bohemian, but a less obvious condo project at 16th Street and Central languished empty for years and may become an apartment complex.

Other properties nearby are also receiving renewed interest now that the community is discussing a possible redevelopment of the adjacent Tropicana Field site.

If the complicated deal to move the Tampa Bay Rays to the waterfront materializes, further dimensions of growth are possible.

"There was a time that people were not knocking on our door with multimillion-dollar offers," Baker said.

"Isn't it great to have opportunities?"

Paul Swider can be reached at pswider@sptimes.com or 892-2271.