Clearwater should move carefully on beach plans
© St. Petersburg Times,
People might have thought that redevelopment of an aging strip of motels on S Gulfview Boulevard overlooking Clearwater Beach could not get any more problematic than it has been in the past year.
Then we found out about Stewart Penny.
Penny is the Miami businessman who has a deal to buy almost 5 acres of prime commercial property in Clearwater Beach. The property overlooks the public beach just south of Pier 60 and will border the city's new, meandering beach drive and promenade. The property is smack in the middle of the only substantial public gulfview corridor remaining on the island.
Penny also has a criminal record and no experience in resort development.
This is the man we must rely on to save Clearwater Beach?
City officials and beach business owners had been hoping that someone would come along who could break up the logjam on the south beach. Beach hotelier Tony Markopoulos, who owns the Days Inn just south of Pier 60 and several surrounding motel properties totalling more than 3 acres, brought beach redevelopment momentum to a halt by suing the city and the developers who want to build a Marriott resort on a 1.6-acre parcel bordering his property.
Markopoulos claimed that the city had improperly processed the Marriott proposal and that the resort, if built, would negatively affect his property. Meanwhile, Markopoulos floated several proposals for massive redevelopment of his own properties and sought several concessions from the city. He mostly got the thumbs-down from city commissioners.
Then suddenly this week, the Marriott developers announced that they had signed an agreement to sell their property to Penny. Markopoulos signed a similar sales agreement with Penny and agreed to drop all of his lawsuits. Penny said he plans to develop the property.
Rumors had been circulating about Penny for months but amounted to little more than this: A Miami businessman whom nobody had heard of was making the rounds of the island and talking about wanting to buy property. He was a big talker and seemed to have big plans, but no one knew if he had the financial resources to buy any of the high-priced beach land, much less develop it.
City officials are grateful that someone has stepped up to prevent the costly wrangling that was likely to ensue in Pinellas courtrooms during the next year as the city and the Marriott developers fought Markopoulos' lawsuits.
But city officials also admit they know little about Penny. The Times did some checking and learned that Penny served 11 months of an 18-month jail sentence in 1992 for grand theft of more than $20,000. Records showed several other arrests for fraud through the years (those charges appear to have been dropped), as well as multiple foreclosures, lawsuits, liens and a 1985 filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
If this land Penny plans to buy and develop were somewhere else in Clearwater, city officials could afford to just sit back and wait to see if he delivered.
But this land is one of the most valuable pieces in Clearwater -- not just in dollars, but in sentiment. That stretch of S Gulfview and the sand it overlooks is the heart of Clearwater Beach to most people. They worry about its future. They want to have a say in what happens there.
We hope Penny understands that. We hope his troubled past is behind him and that he has the ability to do what he says he will do for Clearwater Beach.
But Clearwater officials shouldn't wait. They should be probing Penny's past, examining his current business dealings and preparing contingency plans -- just in case.
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