OLDSMAR — It’s been 18 months since the City Council selected local developers the Simone Group to build a boutique hotel and parking garage that combined would form the foundation of the city’s long-discussed downtown redevelopment project, now known as the Oldsmar Town Center.
In that time, issues including a rooftop bar, parking spaces and of course, COVID-19, have caused little progress to be made toward a potential development agreement, according to City Manager Al Braithwaite. During the Sept. 3 council meeting, Braithwaite labeled the process as “frustrating,” leading Mayor Eric Seidel to state he was ready to pull the plug on the partnership and move on if significant progress wasn’t made toward resolving the issues.
“I will tell you where I’m at with it right now, and I hope this doesn’t prove to be the case. I’m ready to move on,” a calm, but notably frustrated Seidel said. “And I don’t say that lightly. They’re a local company. I know they’ve invested a considerable amount of money to get to the point where they’re at. But I also feel that, based on the feedback, that the meetings are not producing progress. To some extent it seems like they’re going in the wrong direction.”
With the other council members in agreement that it was time for Simone, a family-run business that has already developed several hotels in town, to step up, it appears the company got the message. On Sept. 15, the council agreed to proceed with the development agreement as well as a purchase and sale agreement for the project, which will include a six-story boutique hotel, a parking garage as well as surface parking and landscape features on a portion of the 10-acre parcel adjacent to City Hall.
“If you recall at the last meeting, we expressed concern as to the lack of progress with the Simone Group,” Seidel said when the agenda item was read. “Frankly, this has been going on for quite some time and I think we all felt that if we couldn’t make the progress then it was time to move on to the second bidder, and it sounds like that progress has been made.”
Braithwaite confirmed they had “achieved a meeting of the minds” and they were ready to hammer out the terms of the agreement. While the majority of the council agreed to move forward with Simone, Vice-Mayor Katie Gannon and council member Andrew Knapp said they wouldn’t support sticking with the local developer.
“I have very serious concerns about a lot of events that have transpired thus far during these negotiations,” Gannon said, stating they’ve had “multiple recurring issues with the site plan which persist to this day” and “multiple occasions when we’ve had to threaten to move on to the next ranked proposal to get movement forward to force the issue.”
Noting there were red flags from the start when Simone’s initial proposal didn’t include a rooftop bar atop the hotel, something the council stated was integral to the project, Gannon said, “It’s been a rough road and it leaves me with this feeling of discomfort and uneasiness.” She added she feared they could go through the development process only to be disappointed in the end.
“I feel at this point with all of the aforementioned issues in mind and my deep, deep desire for us to find success and movement on this particular piece of property, I can’t support moving forward with this development,” Gannon said.
Knapp, who was elected in March and didn’t have a say in the selection process, echoed Gannon, stating, “It does bring me worry that how much longer or how many more hurdles will there have to be? It is very concerning to me. … At some point you have to realize just because we want to get it done, is it the right path?”
For his part, Seidel said he understood their concerns, but he felt Simone was still the right partner for the project.
“I was one of the ones who raised the concern about where we were at (during) the last meeting in part because we weren’t making progress,” he said. “Having said that, I know that the developer has invested a lot of money this far into the project and they do have a track record here in the city of Oldsmar of building and operating hotels.”
The mayor noted City Attorney Tom Trask has been working with the developer on the terms of the agreement and “what it ultimately should come down to is the agreeing of the finer points,” and he said he was OK with “staying the course” while keeping a close watch on the progress.
“If staff comes back and says look, this isn’t happening, then I would move on,” Seidel said, adding, “I think it would be a mistake to move on right now. I do.”
The item ultimately passed by a vote of 3-2, with Gannon and Knapp voting against it.
Afterward, Seidel said he believed the developer got the message the council was trying to send.
“During our first meeting in September, the city and the Simone Group did not have the key economic development points resolved,” he said via email the following day. “Therefore, we made it clear during that meeting Simone Group had to decide if they were going to accept the city’s last offer or we would move on to the number 2-ranked developer. Prior to last night’s meeting, the Simone Group came to an agreement in principle with our city team on what had been key open issues, this shows they understood where the council was prior to our vote last night.”
When asked about the split vote, Seidel said, “this Council is passionate about moving the Town Center forward,” adding, “I’m not surprised to see them be aggressive in their willing to make changes to ensure this gets done. Having said that, I do believe the fast actions of the Simone Group since we gave an ultimatum at our meeting on Sept. 1, means starting over is not necessary at this point.”
As for the next step, the mayor said he expects to have a development and purchase agreement for the hotel before the council next month.
“Considering the events of the pandemic, its impact on everyone’s resources, I think we are back on track,” he wrote. “We are once again focusing on additional partners as the markets begin to reopen. Stay tuned, there is a lot more to come for Oldsmar.”