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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Oct. 3, 2003 14 years ago

Coffee Talk

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This week's items: Fruits of First Citrus stock saleConference center to replace Sarasota Quay Van Wezel disputes settled Lee Island coasts largely unknown Media /public workshop not well attended Bill McCollum running for Senate

Fruits of First Citrus stock sale

First Citrus Bank should have no trouble netting the $6.9 million it had hoped to get from a sale of common stock that is set to close later this month.

A state-chartered commercial bank in Tampa, the $103-million-asset First Citrus Bank may be oversubscribed for the offering, says President and Chief Executive Officer John M. Barrett.

For a nearly 5-year-old community bank, First Citrus has performed reasonably well. Its return-on-equity was 5.1% for 2002, compared to a minus 6% for similarly sized banks in Central Florida. Net interest margin was 4.5% versus 3.9%.

But the capital position of First Citrus could use the boost that will come from the stock sale. The bank's 2002 equity capital-to-assets ratio of 9.3% fell below the 10.5% average for peer banks in the region.

First Citrus will use the proceeds from the sale of the expected 500,000 shares at $14 apiece entirely for expansion of operations, according to the offering circular. At present, the bank has three branches, all in Hillsborough County - Brandon, Citrus Park and Palma Ceia.

Local financial services, real estate and medical professionals dominate the bank's board. Directors include insurance salesman Michael Adcock and builder Scott M. Shimberg, both of Tampa; Land O' Lakes real estate broker C. Russell Adams; and Palm Harbor optometrist Rodney O. Horton.

As for Barrett, the CEO has more than 15 years of banking experience, with stints at Merchant Bank of Florida and Southern Exchange Bank before he joined First Citrus Bank at inception in 1999.

Conference center to replace Quay?

Perhaps Patrick Kelly, the Irish hotel developer whose group is buying the Quay in Sarasota to raze it and build a new project there, is succumbing to the persuasive efforts of certain Sarasotans who want him to put a conference center on the Quay site. Originally, Coffee Talk heard that Kelly wanted to build two hotels there.

However, Kelly recently floated some initial proposed plans around town that his group drafted. Two separate sources who have seen the plans tell Coffee Talk that they show a hotel and a conference center.

Meanwhile, the county is hiring a consultant to determine the need and appropriate placement for a conference center - some say this will be the ninth consultant to review the issue.

Assuming this consultant comes to the same conclusion as at least some of the previous consultants and approves a conference center, and even goes so far as to sanction the Quay area for the center, Sarasotans will start holding their breaths, hoping Kelly follows through with the conference center.

If Kelly doesn't come through, however, another idea has been tossed around. The county may consider buying those old two-story condos on the west side of the North Trail between the Quay and Boulevard of the Arts. Those condos are individually owned. If it comes to this alternative, and the property owners don't voluntarily sell to the county, some have suggested the use of eminent domain to take the rest. Remember when that issue came up with the Renaissance? Things could get ugly.

The Van Wezel litigation update

Sarasota has finally settled the disputes over the Van Wezel. Although the city is getting $2.2 million from Taliesin, the architect, the city will only net $350,000 to go toward repairs, estimated to cost millions. That's because the city is paying $1.2 million of the settlement to attorneys and experts, including $350,000 to the city's own regular attorneys at Taylor, Lawless and Singer.

In the Gulf Coast Business Review's special report on the Van Wezel claims ("Purple Mud Bath," Dec. 20, 2002), we wrote: "The current path is leading to a trial with Taliesin for which the city could pay more than $1 million in litigation expenses and in the end have only enough money left in Taliesin's declining insurance policy to repay, maybe, Gray Harris' (the outside counsel) bill."

A couple of weeks ago, city Commissioner Mary Anne Servian suggested the city consider, as a cost-saving measure, hiring staff attorneys who would be full-time, salaried city employees. City Attorney Dick Taylor and his firm currently bill the city by the hour, which, as evidenced in the Van Wezel matter, can quickly add up. For the $350,000 the city is paying Taylor for this matter alone, the city could hire a handful of full-time lawyers for a year. Servian's suggestion has merit.

Although Servian suggested that a blue chip firm review the issue for potential cost savings, the city's own accounting department is conducting the review.

Millions wasted?

One of our coasts is missing.

At least that's what the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau has determined following research about awareness of the "Lee Island Coast" brand. Fewer than 7% of the potential visitors questioned were aware of the "Lee Island Coast," while close to 90% were aware of Fort Myers and Sanibel as vacation destinations.

As a result, the VCB has moved to a new brand positioning to identify the destination as "the Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel." The new approach was revealed last week to the Lee County bed tax collectors and others involved in tourism.

The change is controversial since the "Lee Island Coast" has been backed by millions of dollars in advertising for nearly 20 years, often in the face of criticism from marketing professionals who say it was not how the public referred to the area.

Jay Halcrow, marketing director for Sanibel's West Wind Inn, says, "This should have been done a long time ago. People just didn't understand what or where the Lee Island Coast was."

At the same time, the VCB defended it as being a politically correct way to promote the county without favoring one community over another. That has given way to the need to communicate with travelers more efficiently, post-9/11.

"We must reach people with our message more quickly and more emotionally," says D. T. Minich, executive director of the VCB. "The new brand will allow us to spend the time we have (with consumers and trade resources) promoting the destination rather than explaining where is it located."

This rationale was supported by a travel agent's videotaped observation that "you can't book a flight to the 'Lee Island Coast.'"

The growth of the Internet as a major source of travel information also has motivated the change, which includes the implementation of a new Web address for the county's VCB, "www.fortmyers-sanibel.com." With literally millions of people searching for information online, the ease of locating the Lee County VCB Web site becomes critical, says Minich.

Not much back talk

Who could pass up a chance to tell the news media where to get off?

The Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists was willing to facilitate. But few accepted the challenge on the evening of Sept. 29. The black journalists' association invited the public to a talk-back-to-the-media session with local newspaper, radio and television representatives at the University of Tampa.

An earlier session last spring at the St. Petersburg Times drew more than 200. Some of those attendees mixed it up a bit with the media types who decide what's news around the bay. But the UT crowd was said to be sparser and more deferential.

The workshops aren't really supposed to be gripe sessions. The black journalists' association bills them as: "How to Get Your News in the News." Media reps give civic activists and others a few pointers on how to get a little pub for this cause.

One businesswoman who rose to speak was Cindy Russell of Sarasota web-designer GravityFree, which has not suffered from underexposure in its hometown this year.

Russell and other speakers stood before 13 inscrutable faces crowded behind the media table inside UT's historic Plant Hall. Coffee Talk couldn't help noticing that none of the media pusses belonged to an employee of the Review. (Sniffle, sniffle.) That was probably a good thing, though. Any more bodies behind that table and the media answers would have been restricted to a simple "yes" or "no," so everybody could get home by midnight.

In general, the media folks parried the questions as neatly as a business or government official might theirs. Somebody did stump Weekly Planet Editor Jim Harper by asking for his paper's deadline for submitting event listings.

A woman from a group concerned about juvenile justice praised Times reporter Curtis Krueger for a story published that very day on her issue - the sometimes deadly abuse of teens in state detention facilities. But she still complained that the story took too long to get into the paper.

Can the media please anybody?

Another woman went away unhappy after she demanded the media panel endorse the Equal Rights Amendment on the spot. No takers.

Bill's back

Speaking of the scandal-mongering media, a St. Petersburg Times reporter couldn't help himself Sept. 30.

Bill McCollum touched down in Tampa for a quick announcement to local reporters that he will try again for the U.S. Senate. The former congressman chose a second-floor conference room on the edge of Tampa International Airport as the place to meet the press.

Several private planes were parked on the tarmac out back of Raytheon Aircraft Services. One had to be the aircraft that McCollum flew into Tampa on. The Times' sharp-eyed political editor, Adam C. Smith, noticed a shapely woman in a bikini was depicted on the side of one of the planes.

Hmmmm. Worth a shot.

A smiling Smith asked McCollum if the bikini plane was the one that the Republican family-values candidate was using for that day's whirlwind tour of Florida fixed-base-operators.

Chuckling, McCollum told the Tampa press that, unfortunately for them, the former House floor manager for President Clinton's impeachment was using less flashy transportation.

Bill Nelson edged McCollum in 2000 for Connie Mack's old Senate seat. McCollum is hoping to ride the war-on-terror to victory this time. McCollum played up his founding of a U.S. House anti-terrorism task force in 1989, more than a decade before the 2001 attacks.

McCollum had Mack by his side the whole day as they flew around the state, including stops in Sarasota and Naples. Mack, a former Cape Coral resident, chairs McCollum's campaign.

Mack's conservative imprimatur should help McCollum stay ahead of a GOP primary pack that includes Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City and long-time state legislator Daniel Webster.

"It's important for Republicans to elect a senator that will stand with President Bush and not against him," Mack told reporters. The reference was to incumbent Bob Graham, who has flailed away at George W. Bush while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

McCollum says he would be a dependable Senate vote for the president during a second Bush term. "The worst thing in the world right now would be to increase taxes or to over-regulate," he says, "because we need to see our businesses grow and create more jobs."

Finding of fact

Tampa resident Stephen C. Carter recently won a partial victory against the Internal Revenue Service in his six-year battle over tax returns filed in 1986-89. The former regional vice president of Stuart-James & Co., one of the nation's most active penny stock brokerages during the 1980s, convinced a U.S. Tax Court judge that a three-year limitation on prosecution elapsed on three of four tax returns filed during the contested time period. The IRS claimed Carter committed fraud when he filed the returns, thus voiding any limitations he might claim under the Internal Revenue Code.

"The respondent did not establish by clear and convincing evidence that the petitioner was liable for fraud," the Tax Court said on behalf of Carter, who acted as his own attorney and once managed 14 branch offices and 300 sales representatives. "To the contrary, petitioner established that he did not intend to evade tax, but was negligent and inattentive regarding his record-keeping and tax filing obligations."

However, the court ruled against Carter on the civil charge over his 1989 tax return. The court cited Carter's 1995 federal conviction on a single count of income tax evasion as evidence he fraudulently filed his 1989 tax return. That year the court said he received but did not report a $105,341 pension fund distribution. In 1995, a federal jury found Carter guilty on a single count of tax evasion, acquitted him on two other charges, with a judge declaring a mistrial on one other count. The federal court sentenced him to 12 months probation on that conviction.

It's uncertain exactly how much Carter is liable for now in deficiencies, additions to tax for fraud and or fraud penalties, because the Tax Court memorandum did not disclose that information. IRS officials in Florida say such information probably would remain private unless disclosed in further civil proceedings or unless the agency filed a federal tax lien against any property Carter might own.

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