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    Tarpon Springs plan hinges on collaboration

    The City Commission will voteTuesday on the redevelopment plan, called "a road map.''

    By RICHARD DANIELSON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 6, 2000


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Without naming names, Mayor Frank DiDonato said last week that City Hall would not plunge into the kind of redevelopment plan rejected in, say, Clearwater.

    "The one south of here involved one major developer, and it involved basically forcing people to do things that maybe they didn't want to do," DiDonato told a meeting of about 20 business and property owners at the Heritage Center in Craig Park.

    By contrast, Tarpon Spring's proposed plan -- outlined in a 158-page report from the RMPK Group of Sarasota -- "will involve a lot of different developers," DiDonato said.

    "This is not a forced issue," he said. "This is a road map for all of us to take together if you want. Some will take it; some will not."

    Still, the plan includes some challenges. Among other things, the city would look at:

    Raising more than $15-million during the next 10 or more years for a series of public works projects.

    Persuading leaders at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral that a piece of church-owned property on the east side of N Pinellas Avenue should be jointly used for a mixed-use development that would include downtown parking and a trolley stop. The church plans to use the land for a community center.

    Buying more right of way along N Pinellas Avenue, as well as adding diagonal parking and landscaping to make the road more attractive to pedestrians and entrepreneurs. With its narrow right of way and utility poles planted in the middle of sidewalks, the road is "probably the most glaring deficiency that you have, and it's also one of your biggest challenges," said Kurt Easton of RMPK. The costs of improving Pinellas Avenue alone are estimated at $7-million.

    First, however, the City Commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to adopt the plan in concept. That concept is wide-ranging and would be phased in over two decades.

    As proposed, the city would create landscaped gateways at the north, south and east entrances to the city so visitors have more of a sense of place when they arrive, Easton said. There also would be a new three-story, 600-car parking garage between Court and Lemon streets, improvements to the Pinellas Trail and the re-creation of the old Central Park at the southeast corner of Tarpon and Pinellas avenues.

    In response to the city's investment, the plan's authors would expect that entrepreneurs would be attracted to the city, and they have specific ideas about what development should be encouraged.

    After about six months of discussions with city officials, business owners and residents, RMPK has sketched a vision that includes a hotel, conference center and an "eco-tourism" hub on the south bank of the Anclote River.

    Easton and his staff also think the area between Pinellas Avenue and Spring Bayou might be conducive to the creation of bed-and-breakfast inns. Sculptors and skilled craft workers might create an arts district along Lemon Street. And if the city turned Hibiscus Avenue into a more pedestrian-friendly street, then artists might open home workshops along the road.

    Or maybe not.

    The overarching idea is to create an atmosphere that fosters development. Which private projects get built would depend largely on decisions made by business people. For instance, DiDonato said he has recently heard from two potential developers interested in building hotels in two different places in the city. He has talked to both.

    As outlined in the plan, the city would need to spend more than $15-million to pay for the proposed public improvements. Officials anticipate that some of the money would come from state and federal grants for transportation improvements, historic preservation and recreation. But the city would expect new development downtown to generate tax revenue that could be spent to attract even more growth.

    Before that happens, however, the City Commission would have to take a series of steps to put the plan in motion. After approving the plan in concept, it could consider creating a new Community Redevelopment Agency within the city to shepherd the plan along.

    Along the way, the city would have to get Pinellas County officials to sign off on the creation of the Community Redevelopment Agency. Tarpon Springs officials acknowledge that getting that approval is not a sure thing.

    There's another thing: To create the redevelopment agency, the city must declare that the area to be served is a slum or is blighted.

    Easton said that designation alone is enough to put off some residents, but he added that the criteria for what constitutes blight is broad. For example, he said having lots smaller than allowed by current zoning is one sign of blight.

    If the city got past those hurdles, officials would draw the boundaries of a redevelopment district and begin to raise funds through tax increment financing. The term might sound complicated, but the idea is straightforward and has been used for years by cities throughout the country.

    Here's how it would work: Once the city set the boundary for the redevelopment district, officials would add up the assessed value of all property in the district. That total value would become the baseline for the district's operations.

    In the future, the tax revenues generated by that base value would continue to go to the local governments that have collected them. But as the assessed value of property in the district grew, the additional property tax revenue money generated by the increased value would be directed into a redevelopment fund.

    That money could be used to pay for some projects. For example, planners and city officials anticipate using some tax increment financing to pay for a parking garage that would be built as part of the riverside hotel project. It also could be used to match grants from other agencies for projects or could be used to make debt payments for projects on which the city had to borrow money.

    City officials have not set the boundaries for the district and said last week that they don't know yet how much tax increment financing would be generated.

    At last week's public meeting, though, several participants raised questions about the plan.

    Former city manager Costa Vatikiotis, now a candidate for mayor, said the RMPK study focuses mainly on the corridors of a few roads through town. But, he said, the redevelopment district might have to be considerably larger to generate enough money to tackle the projects that have been proposed.

    Vatikiotis also questioned how new bed and breakfasts would be received by residents near Craig Park.

    "I'm not against the plan," he said after the meeting. "My biggest concern is the implementation."

    After attending a luncheon at which the plan was discussed, former mayor Anita Protos said people she has talked to want to hear more about how much the plan would cost and where the city would expect to get the money.

    "All of us (at the luncheon) just looked at each other and said, "We don't know,' " she said. "We're not saying scrap the program because of costs, but it's something we need to look at and need to know."

    - Staff writer Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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