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Pace quickens to reap $750,000 grant

The head of the Economic Development Commission is urged to hurry documents to the state.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


Hernando County could lose its claim to a $750,000 infrastructure grant for a distribution center at Interstate 75 because the proper paperwork has not been collected in time for a Thanksgiving deadline.

During a meeting of the Economic Development Commission on Wednesday, County Commissioner and EDC board member Chris Kingsley outlined three things that EDC officials have failed to forward to the state to lock in the grant.

Those include paperwork showing a transfer of property from a private company to Polaris Pool Systems Inc., the business that plans to build a manufacturing and distribution warehouse at I-75 and Cortez Boulevard; deeded rights of way to Hernando County for street improvements; and the release of easements on private property to the county for water lines.

"If we don't get everything in time, they'll go to the second person on the list with the $750,000," Kingsley said at the meeting, held at Bank of America in Weeki Wachee. A memo forwarded to Kingsley from county social services coordinator and project manager Jean Rags stated that the state's deadline for the documents is 5 p.m. Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving. But because offices are closed for the holiday, state officials said that the real deadline is Nov. 22.

Rags has been working on the grant application process along with EDC executive director Rick Michael. But Kingsley told the board that Rags "feels she's been left out of the loop."

Michael fired back that Rags' memo was "nothing but a cover" for "a person that is learning as she goes."

Michael said the points raised in the memo were ones that he raised with Rags. The problem, he said, was that the county's paid grant consultant on the project had been giving him conflicting answers.

"There's not a piece of paper that can show we should have been doing something we're not," Michael said.

Kingsley and other EDC board members told Michael to stop blaming people and collect the paperwork.

"Whether you consider (Rags) a novice at it or not is irrelevant," Kingsley said.

EDC board member and state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said she could help speed up the delivery of documents to state offices if Michael could get them collected in time, which Michael said he would do by the end of next week.

"Rather than point fingers, we need to get together with this," Brown-Waite said. "We're going to lose this grant because no one's taking ownership of it."

When contacted at her county office after the meeting, Rags said the current situation began with a site visit in late August by the state Department of Community Affairs, which subsequently agreed to reserve $750,000 for road and utility improvements for the Polaris project.

During the site visit, Michael reassured Rags and the state official that he would take care of obtaining the deed and right-of-way documents now in question because he was familiar with the parties tied to Polaris, the real estate agent and the current property owners.

Rags said she and the grant consultant informed Michael on Tuesday during a three-way phone conversation that those documents were still needed and that the deadline to get them back to the state was quickly approaching.

"He made those points yesterday, but only because we called him about those points," she said. One of the documents must be approved by the County Commission before it's sent to the state.

Rags said she does not have a problem working with Michael and only alerted Kingsley because she worried about the deadline.

"(Michael) had the responsibility with the real estate agent, and I felt comfortable with that," she said. "I wasn't trying to point the finger. It's just my responsibility to make sure people know where we were with this."

Steven Massey, a development representative with the DCA's division of housing and community development who is overseeing the project, said he also remembers Michael promising to take care of the deeds and easement documents during the site visit.

"I believe he basically said, "I'm working with them, and I'll take care of it,' " Massey said.

The county will lose its right to the money if it misses the deadline and if other applicants are waiting in line, he said. No other applications are in the office at this point, though, and the state has $6-million left to give out before March 31. If Hernando County doesn't submit its materials until after the deadline, and other cities and counties also apply after Nov. 22, Hernando would have to wait its turn on the list for money to become available.

Officials with Polaris Pool Systems were unavailable for comment Wednesday. Its project is one of five the EDC took credit for in its June annual report. However, the St. Petersburg Times reported in a September story that the EDC exaggerated some of those claims or, in the case of Polaris, made them prematurely.

Massey couldn't predict what will happen if Hernando misses its Nov. 22 deadline.

"I know there are a lot of applications cooking out there," he said. "Whether we will get a bunch in between now and (Nov. 22), I don't know."

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