TARPON SPRINGS – In February 2018, the City Commission, acting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, agreed to purchase the old Sunbay Motel near Craig Park for $862,000, with idea to turn the land, and adjacent lot, into an attractive downtown tourism destination.
After the building, which many considered a nuisance, was razed in March of last year, at a cost of roughly $16,000, the CRA approved a one-year renewable lease agreement with architect Edward Hoffman for the two parcels he owns at 61 W. Tarpon Ave. The lease includes the vacant lot and a 500-square-foot building, which has since been turned into a Community Redevelopment Center for city officials to meet prospective developers, among other uses.
The terms of the lease included a monthly rent of $550, plus property taxes, and expenses that pushed the annual total to just under $10,000.
The decision to enter the original lease was not met with unanimous approval, and when it came time for the CRA to address the renewal, the contract was once again denounced by commissioners Susan Kikta and Rea Sieber.
“As you know, I cannot support this item,” Kikta said during the CRA meeting on Feb. 12. “I haven’t supported this from the beginning because we’re paying taxpayers money, we’re paying $10,000 a year, to rent that building and to pay the taxes on the land next to it. I just can’t support it.”
Kikta went on to say: “We’re paying to showcase someone else’s property. I know we want to develop down there, I understand that. But we have buildings in town that we can have focus groups at…and I just can’t support continuing to use taxpayer’s money to showcase someone else’s property, especially when that property owner has had twenty-something years to develop that property.”
Sieber agreed, noting she “never supported spending almost a million dollars of taxpayer’s money to purchase that property—it’s not worth anything close to that—and then we spent the money to develop it and we haven’t really gone anywhere in a year as far as doing something with that property.”
She added, “We just continue to spend taxpayer’s money. Which I just think is wrong…I can’t approve spending any more money on that piece of property.”
Commissioners Jacob Karr and David Banther and Mayor Chris Alahouzos all expressed support for continuing the lease, at least for one more year, noting the area is now clean and safer.
“I do see a value,” Karr said, adding, “It’s not that much money, relatively speaking, to the majority of things that we approve on a monthly basis, for this property to have some control over it from a safety perspective. I think it makes sense.”
Karr advocated allowing Community Development Director Karen Lemmons another year to continue to work with potential developers for the site and then reevaluate the lease next year. Alahouzos agreed, asking Lemmons if she believed the property could be under some form of development within the next year.
“I know you’ve been working really hard and meeting people there,” Alahouzos said. “What’s your feeling on that?”
“We certainly would hope so,” Lemmons replied, adding, “I can’t promise anything.”
She noted they have been working with several different developers on proposals involving a mixed-use development as well as a residential-only project.
“I can’t promise I will have something definitive for you within a year,” Lemmons said. “Time will tell.”
With little further discussion the item passed by a vote of 3-2, with Kikta and Sieber voting no.
“The city did a great job beautifying that property, it’s looking great, but my question is, why is it our responsibility?” Kikta said by phone a week after the meeting. “It should be the property owner’s responsibility. He’s had 20 years to develop that property, there’s been no progress other than some preliminary talks over the past year, so why agree to do it for another year?”
Kikta said she had no beef with Hoffman, whom she called a “smart businessman” she greatly respects, but she said she couldn’t reconcile using taxpayer’s dollars to first purchase, and now lease, his land.
“We paid for the appraisal on the property, and now the rent and the property taxes,” Kikta said. “Ten thousand a year to showcase his property. Since when are we in the real estate business?
She added she hopes something is done soon—she would like to see a boutique