Gulf Coast Week

Dec. 7, 2007

Gulf Coast Week


Redevelopment is key

Most attention has been focused on the plan for a waterfront ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays, topped with a soaring sail strung from a 320-foot-tall mast.

Several blocks to the west, in a far less glamorous setting, lay the key to the whole deal.

The Rays' plans for an iconic downtown ballpark hinges on the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site. The Rays hope more than half of the cost of a $450 million ballpark will come from the city's sale of Tropicana to a developer, and property taxes generated by development.

Hines Interests LP, known for developing the Galleria malls in Houston and Dallas and several trophy office buildings, recently unveiled part of its vision of a retail-driven, mixed-use project on roughly 86 acres.

The city of St. Petersburg intends to solicit bids from developers this winter to tear down Tropicana Field and invest up to $700 million into the site.

As raw vacant land, the property alone would be worth as little as $30-million, according to real estate experts. But the value leaps exponentially depending what development rights the city negotiates for a huge blank canvas near downtown with interstate access.

Skeptics abound, including rival developers currently bidding to redevelop the abandoned 240-acre Toytown landfill north of downtown in the Gateway area.

Distributor to expand

A Miramar-based liquor distributor plans to add as many as 550 employees and build a huge warehouse facility in south Hillsborough County.

Premier Beverage Co. of Florida recently closed on 249 acres near Madison Avenue and U.S. 41, just west of the Progress Village community. It plans a 575,000-square-foot warehouse in its first phase, followed by two more phases that may bring it to 1.5 million square feet, said Keith Poliakoff, an attorney for the company. The company will move out of its leased facility near Riverview.

The company may start clearing land as early as February, says Gregg Lipp, Premier's vice president of operations. The warehouse will distribute wine and spirits throughout the Tampa Bay area, and from Naples in the south to Marion County in the north.


Class action suit proceeds

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has certified a landowner-government dispute in Sarasota County as a class action case open to all property owners in the effected areas.

The case, Rogers v. U.S., involves a claim by county property owners whose land borders the former CSX-Seminole Gulf Railroad, also known as the Seabaord Air Line Railroad.

The abandoned railroad corridor, which once carried Ringling Bros. circus cars, covers about 12 miles between Sarasota and Venice. It was previously converted into a recreational rails-to-trails area under the Federal Trails Act.

Mark Hearne, a St. Louis-based attorney representing the landowners, says the problem isn't with turning the railway into a trail. Instead, the legal issue is with compensating the landowners for the transformation.

"The Legacy Trail is a great asset to the Sarasota community and will undoubtedly be a popular public amenity," Hearne says in a statement concerning the class action decision. "But when, as here, property is taken from some property owners for the benefit of the community as a whole, the Fifth Amendment requires that the property owners be compensated for this taking of their land."

The class action designation is for property owners who owned property in the given area as of April 2, 2004. The deadline for making a compensation claim is Feb. 11, 2008.

First Banks enters Florida

St. Louis-based First Banks, one of the largest privately held bank holding companies in the country, is officially entering Florida, and specifically the Gulf Coast, at a bargain price.

The bank, with just under 200 branches in four states, officially closed on its deal to buy Bradenton-based Coast Bank Nov. 30, after Missouri federal regulators approved it. First Banks moved quickly to begin the transformation - by Dec. 3, phones in the executive offices were being answered under the First Banks name. The Coast stock is also being de-listed from the Nasdaq exchange.

First Banks paid $12 million, or $1.86 per share for the bank's assets and its 20 branches in Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Due to ongoing problems with residential real estate loans - problems that led to Coast Bank's demise in the first place - he final price was even lower than the initial sale price of $22 million, or $3.40 a share.

"We have been focused on expanding into the Florida market for some time," First Banks Chief Executive Officer Terry McCarthy says in a statement. "This transaction presented us with a unique opportunity to do so."


I-75 widening debate

Lee and Collier county commissioners will decide by January whether to agree to toll the two new lanes that will be built by the state on Intestate 75 in the next several years. Currently, I-75 has four lanes in the two counties, two in each direction, and the state is about to start building two more lanes (one in each direction).

The Southwest Florida Expressway Authority, which has the authority to toll roads, must obtain agreement from Lee and Collier to toll the two new lanes in order to finance six additional toll lanes (three in each direction). For now, only Lee commissioners appear ready to back the project while most Collier commissioners oppose it.

The authority seeks to widen I-75 to 10 lanes. Four lanes will remain free.

November permits plunge

Residential homebuilding permits fell 83% in November from the same month a year ago in Lee County. Lee County's community development department issued 60 residential permits in November compared to 357 in November 2006.

Meanwhile, the value of commercial-building permits fell 65% in November compared with the same month a year ago. Lee County issued commercial-building permits valued at $18 million in November compared with $52 million in November 2006.

In the first 11 months of 2007, Lee County issued 26,661 building permits of all kinds valued at $2.2 billion. At the same time last year, the county had issued 41,521 building permits valued at about $3.7 billion. The number of permits dropped 36% and the total value has declined 41%.