Possible sale of vacant downtown property discussed

TARPON SPRINGS - The painted fence depicting a clear, sunny day in the city provides a bright splash of color to the downtown, but it also covers up a sizeable burden.

That blemish is a city-owned empty space right in the middle of the downtown streetscape.

After a lengthy, discouraging period of virtually zero interest from potential investors, though, city officials are upbeat that redevelopment may finally occur.

Mark Maconi, a partner with Palm Harbor-based F & M Development of Pinellas, briefly informed city commissioners in late May about what could soon fill downtown's void.
That new building, as it's envisioned now, would be a two-story structure that closely resembles what was there more than 100 years ago.

"What we're going to propose is as close of a reproduction to the old G.E. Noblit building that originally existed on the Forbes property before it was torn down," Maconi said. Granville Edwin Noblit Sr. was an early settler of Tarpon Springs, but the lot is referred to as the Forbes property, after its most recent private owner.

Nothing has filled the lot since the original building was demolished five years ago this month.

That's something that needs to change, said Commissioner Townsend Tarapani, and this new proposal appears to hold promise.

"When a city owns a piece of property there are no economic benefits to the city," Tarapani said during opening statements of an item he had placed on the agenda. "In theory this project will act as a catalyst for the rebirth of our downtown."

Along with creating a structure that fits with the historic look of downtown Tarpon Avenue, Maconi said the project will help further promote the city as a walkable community. The building will be a residential-commercial split, with one or multiple businesses below and multiple apartments above.

"We hope to reintroduce some new, modern residential units to downtown to create the live, work, play new urban atmosphere," Maconi said.

Five members of the audience approached the microphone during public comment with all speaking optimistically about making progress with the property.

One of those residents was local businessman Vasile Faklis, whose family has operated Faklis' Department Store and Shoe Repair, across the street from the Forbes property, for more than 100 years.

"This is what we need to do," he said. "We need to be a city that encourages businesses and encourages investors."

Following the initial discussion, city commissioners voted 5-0 while sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency to begin contract negotiations with F&M Development.

The positive mood regarding this property was a 180-degree turn from the last couple years.

A sales proposal created last year by the city and its economic development manager, Karen Lemmons, to drum up interest in the Forbes site did not attract investment at the time.

Some of the responses, said City Manager Mark LeCouris, were from investors saying the risk was still too high even if the city gave away the property.
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