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    Commissioners share downtown vision

    Largo leaders conceptualize an area of stylish restaurants and cafes, trendy specialty shops and townhouses along newly installed brick streets.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2001


    LARGO -- For the first time, City Commissioners on Tuesday are expected to officially approve a unified vision for downtown, a step some think is vital to sparking economic development there.

    Stakeholders in Largo's efforts to improve its downtown hope this measure will the end the two-year logjam that has stymied the city's attempts to work with a contractor to develop about 8 acres off West Bay Drive.

    "I think it's pretty important for the commission to come to a consensus on what they would like to see so it would stop the confusion," said Marc Mansfield, president of the Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce. "They have to have a vision to let developers feel comfortable with investing their money."

    City officials and commissioners have worked on the objectives for more than two months.

    The broad vision for the area calls for a combination of Main Street in Dunedin, St. Petersburg's BayWalk and New York City's SoHo: an area of stylish restaurants and cafes, trendy specialty shops, townhouses and a pedestrian bridge linking downtown to Largo Central Park.

    To help make that vision a reality, the city would install brick streets in the area and remove all overhead utility lines. The city already has spent more than $13-million to improve drainage downtown and widen West Bay Drive between Seminole Boulevard and Clearwater-Largo Road. The road-widening project is expected to be completed this month.

    City leaders hope the infrastructure improvements and their grand vision for the area will encourage businesses to set up shop downtown. The key to the city's plans in the area, about 8 vacant acres just south of West Bay Drive, would be sold by the city to a developer who would build a complex for retail, residential and commercial use. A small park would remain in the area.

    The inability to agree on a set of objectives for downtown Largo has frustrated area merchants, who have accused commissioners of dragging their feet.

    Ron Poole has been one such merchant.

    Poole, owner of a framing shop on Missouri Avenue, likes much of what he has heard about the city's plans. But he is worried that the city's aversion to rental units in the area may discourage some developers. He thinks commissioners should meet with leaders from the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Largo Main Street Association to agree on objectives for the area.

    "I think (the plans) would roll like a snowball if that happens," he said.

    City Commissioner Harriet Crozier had similar concerns about whether the plans for the vacant land were too specific. Crozier's worries were allayed after spending 2 1/2 hours with city officials discussing the plans Monday afternoon.

    "I think it's a good plan and I think it will bring people in," she said.

    Crozier, who took offense to some area merchants' criticism of commissioners, did agree that it is time to move forward with a shared vision.

    "It's extremely important that this item be discussed, and it must be approved," she said.

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