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Business Observer Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 10 years ago

Gulf Coast Week

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Shells shuts downA one-time Gulf Coast institution that used to attract lines outside its locations that featured shelled peanuts, grouper sandwiches and wall paintings of local celebrities, Shells Seafood Restaurants Inc., is closing its doors.Two more for Chapter 11Bill Heard Chevrolet, a Plant City mainstay business for many years, recently closed days before mounting losses forced its parent company in Columbus, Ga. to file for protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.Yacht club project sailsThe Sarasota City Commission recently approved a $55 million yacht club and redevelopment project for an area just north of downtown Sarasota that promises to bring more than 100 jobs to the region, not to mention a jolt to the sagging local construction industry.Lee County manager clearedAn independent review of Lee County Manager Donald Stillwell found no evidence that he lied to county commissioners about his ownership in land whose value could be affected by their decisions.Airport traffic down 8%Southwest Florida International Airport saw an 8% decline in passenger traffic in August compared with the same month a year ago. Nearly 449,000 passengers traveled through the Fort Myers airport.FGCU gets $600,000Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers received a $600,000 gift from North Carolina-based banking company BB&T Corp. to establish the BB&T Distinguished Professorship in Free Enterprise at the Lutgert College

Gulf Coast Week

TAMPA BAY

Shells shuts down

A one-time Gulf Coast institution that used to attract lines outside its locations that featured shelled peanuts, grouper sandwiches and wall paintings of local celebrities, Shells Seafood Restaurants Inc., is closing its doors.

The Tampa company closed eight poorer-performing restaurants then filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, paving the way for it to reorganize and continue the business.

But recently it changed course, closing its 10 remaining restaurants and telling the court it will close the business. Unable to secure enough cash and credit to stay open, the company filed for Chapter 7, which means it will liquidate its assets and close.

In 1985, Swiss gourmet chef John Christen opened the first Shells restaurant, a no-frills eatery in South Tampa. Restaurants in St. Pete Beach, Brandon, Clearwater and Redington Shores were among those closed.

However, four independently owned Shells restaurants, including two in Tampa and another in Sarasota, are not part of the corporate bankruptcy court filing and will remain open.

Two more for Chapter 11

Bill Heard Chevrolet, a Plant City mainstay business for many years, recently closed days before mounting losses forced its parent company in Columbus, Ga. to file for protection from creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Joining Heard in Chapter 11: Tampa-based Creative Loafing, which owns six alternative weekly newspapers.

Bill Heard owes employees about $816,000 in wages and benefits, according to a filing in the case. Customers owed deposits or other money get priority payments.

Creative Loafing employs about 270 people and publishes newspapers in Tampa, Sarasota, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago and Washington.

The company owes more than $40 million to about 70 creditors. The majority of the debt stems from last year's acquisition of newspapers in Chicago and Washington.

During the reorganization, Creative Loafing intends to accelerate plans to deliver more news and information over the Internet and via mobile electronic devices. In addition, the company plans to bundle its online and print products for advertisers.

SARASOTA/MANATEE

Yacht club project sails

The Sarasota City Commission recently approved a $55 million yacht club and redevelopment project for an area just north of downtown Sarasota that promises to bring more than 100 jobs to the region, not to mention a jolt to the sagging local construction industry. The project, proposed by Sarasota-based Githler Development, calls for a 267-slot boathouse to go with a three-story, 130 room hotel, a Chevron gas station and a 5,500-square-foot high end restaurant.

The developers, which bought parcels of the nine-acre site for the proposed project in piecemeal from 2003 to 2007, hope the project serves as a catalyst for long-awaited redevelopment of the area, known as the North Trail. It's a strip that has been known more for its high drug use and prostitution arrests than for its development projects.

The developers also told city commissioners the project would be a big boost to the city's declining tax base, with impact fees totaling $400,000 and an annual payroll exceeding $2 million.

Still, the project faced some controversy before it was approved. A group of neighbors and other local residents argued to city commissioners that the project would be too loud and too big. The final vote was 3-2 in favor of the project.

LEE/COLLIER

Lee County manager cleared

An independent review of Lee County Manager Donald Stillwell found no evidence that he lied to county commissioners about his ownership in land whose value could be affected by their decisions.

The Lee County commission hired Fort Lauderdale-based CPA Michael Crain to review questions surrounding ownership of land through an investment group headed by Stillwell's son-in-law, Samir Cabrera. Cabrera was indicted for fraud earlier this year in connection with the land deals.

Airport traffic down 8%

Southwest Florida International Airport saw an 8% decline in passenger traffic in August compared with the same month a year ago. Nearly 449,000 passengers traveled through the Fort Myers airport.

Year to date, passenger traffic is down 5% over the same period in 2007, when more than 8 million passengers passed through the airport.

The passenger-traffic leader in August was Delta, with 61,926 passengers. The next four were JetBlue (56,072 passengers), AirTran (52,338), US Airways (51,091) and Southwest (48,619).

FGCU gets $600,000

Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers received a $600,000 gift from North Carolina-based banking company BB&T Corp. to establish the BB&T Distinguished Professorship in Free Enterprise at the Lutgert College of Business.

The university in Fort Myers will use the funds to develop a new course for business majors that examines the philosophical basis for free-market economics and the ties between capitalism and economic well-being. The funds qualify for a 50% match from the state, which would boost the gift to $900,000.

The university's business school also plans to create an annual lecture series to explore free enterprise capitalism. The professor leading the program will be named soon. BB&T is based in Winston-Salem, N.C., and has 1,500 locations in 11 states and Washington, D.C.

Impact fees delayed

The city of North Port, facing the most severe housing construction slump in its 50-year history, has put a temporary freeze on impact fees, the taxes homebuilders pay to build a new home.

The city had been planning a 30% increase in the fees for 2009, from about $6,900 per home to about $9,900 per home. But the city commission recently voted to delay that increase by at least a year, to see how, or when, the housing market slump recovers.

North Port city leaders postponed an impact fee hike last year, too, although the move did little to stimulate sales. In fact, the real estate slump, specifically in new homes, has hit North Port especially hard. For example, the city set an all-time low in August when it issued only two new home building permits.

The city is also placing a temporary freeze on commercial building impact fees.

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