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    City asks: Help us plan our 8 acres

    Officials hope a task force of community leaders can help sort out what needs to be done with the land to promote a downtown renaissance.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2000


    LARGO -- After two failed efforts to strike a deal to develop about 8 acres in downtown Largo, city officials are turning to community leaders for help.

    A task force of volunteers is being formed to do what the city's elected and appointed leaders haven't been able to do: find someone to develop the land, which includes the now-vacant City Hall.

    Staff members were supposed to hand in their suggestions for candidates by Friday. Mayor Bob Jackson said he also will seek names from commissioners. The mayor said he, City Manager Steven Stanton and Community Development director Ric Goss likely will select the members, which would include at least 15 people.

    "I just want to get it going and get it going fast," Jackson said.

    Last month, commissioners voted against a plan by Simpson Housing Limited Partnership that included building 170 rental units on the property. The city has looked to the development of the site as a key element in the economic rebirth of downtown Largo, and several commissioners said they did not think the Simpson plan would spark such efforts.

    Commissioners were roundly criticized by supporters and detractors of the Simpson Housing plan for their ambivalence about the proposal. A week before rejecting the plan, most commissioners said they were willing to work with the company, although they had reservations about its plans.

    By creating a task force, Jackson hopes to find common ground among the community leaders who have had conflicting visions for what they would like to see on the property.

    "We need to bring the opposing factions together so we can be unified when we look for a developer," Jackson said.

    Two keys groups the mayor hopes to bring together are the Downtown Largo Main Street Association, who supported the most part of the plan, and the Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce, which urged commissioners to reject the proposal.

    They have also differed on their visions for Ulmer Park, which sits in the middle of the 8-acre parcel. Some Main Street members have been adamant that the park must stay, in one form or another. Some chamber members have argued that the park limits what a developer can do with the land.

    Both groups said they are willing to participate in the new task force.

    "We would welcome any effort to get things moving and progressing on that parcel of property," said Main Street president Mary McManus.

    "I think it's a good idea to get a broad base of people to provide some input on what should or should not be built," said chamber president Marc Mansfield.

    Other questions Jackson hopes the task force can answer include whether apartments are wanted on the land and, if so, how many units are desired. The task force will also try to figure out how much commercial space should be on the property.

    Ultimately, the decision to select or reject a developer still will come down to the commissioners, who will not be on the task force.

    Jackson hopes commissioners will attend task force meetings and offer advice to the group.

    "The commission needs to interact with (the task force) as well," he said.

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