The board of Forward Pinellas, a countywide land use and transportation planning agency, voted Wednesday against recommending approval of a proposed sports tourism and apartment complex in the Tyrone area of west St. Petersburg.
The advisory vote followed a two-hour debate over the best use of the land, a 29-acre tract formerly owned by aerospace and defense firm Raytheon.
Agency staff and Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development, said the property would be better suited to industrial uses. But the land has sat vacant for years with no interested purchasers, a team of advisors working for the developer, Porter Development, said. The sports tourism complex would provide up to $17 million a year in direct economic benefits, about 100 jobs and much-needed workforce housing, those advisors said.
The Forward Pinellas board voted eight-to-four against recommending the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners approve an amendment that would change the land use on the county plan map. The Board of County Commissioners is scheduled to hear the case on April 13, with the St. Petersburg City Council expected to have a second reading and public hearing on the plan on May 20.
Les Porter, president of Porter Development, said he was surprised by the Forward Pinellas board decision.
“We have worked diligently with surrounding neighborhood groups, city staff, and county staff to provide a well-thought-out option to an industrial project,” Porter told the St. Pete Catalyst. “My team sincerely believes our project is much more beneficial to the community than the alternative. Our project will not only bring jobs but will drive substantial tourism dollars to help local small business owners. These small business owners sorely need economic drivers off the beach and downtown. Also, our project has a large workforce housing component. The housing affordability problem in Pinellas County is only going to grow. We will be providing real relief to that serious issue. We look forward to making our case to the County Commission and we thank the city of St Pete for their continued support in this endeavor.”
‘Source of community pride’
Porter Development has an agreement with the city to build a 150,000-square-foot sports tourism facility, ancillary retail and restaurant uses, a public lagoon with a beach area and a multi-family building with a minimum of 30 percent of the units designated as workforce housing. The project would be located at 1501 72nd St. N.
“After decades of dormancy, the project and the time has finally come to turn this community eyesore — this environmentally problematic, under-utilized, chronically impaired site — into a source of community pride and community activation,” said Brian Aungst, a shareholder at McFarlane Ferguson and McMullen in Clearwater. Aungst is representing Porter Development in the project.
Sports tourism would bring families from all over the country to Pinellas County, other Porter advisors said.
“On an annual basis that would bring up to $17 million in direct economic benefit. That’s not a number we created. That’s a number based on Visit St. Pete Clearwater and the average daily expenditure of people who come to the market, who wouldn’t be here if not for events at the venue,” said Eric Sullivan, a partner at Sports Facilities Companies in Clearwater.
But sports tourism is not a target employment industry, said Nousheen Rahman, planning analyst at Forward Pinellas.
A report from the Forward Pinellas staff estimated the average annual wage for potential jobs provided by the proposed project would be $28,220. Sullivan said that was not an accurate depiction. He said the project would create about 20 management-level jobs, each averaging about $50,000 in annual salary. The remaining jobs would be part-time, seasonal opportunities.
An industrial user on the site would be likely to have up to 463 employees, while a storage, warehouse or distributor could have up to 214 workers, the Forward Pinellas staff report said.
The city received a letter from Stonemont Financial Group, which said it was representing a company interested in a potential distribution center on the site, said Derek Kilborn, manager of the city’s urban planning and historic preservation division.
“There was nothing in the letter that guaranteed investment in the property so for us, it’s not something we consider in the application in front of us,” Kilborn said.
Two of three nearby neighborhood associations, the Jungle Terrace Civic Association and the Azalea Neighborhood Association, are in favor the Porter plan. The third, Crossroads Area Homeowners Association, has concerns about traffic, noise, public safety and remediation of contaminated soil from prior industrial uses.
Raytheon is responsible for the cleanup, and built a cleaning facility on the south end of the property several years ago.
That remediation process scared away some industrial clients, but it’s nearing completion now, said Meidel, the county’s economic development director.
“The site is much more attractive than it was 20 years ago when it was just beginning cleanup,” he said. “The other thing that’s different today is we have an employment sites program, based on the [Penny for Pinellas sales tax], that is designed to create vertical construction of office or industrial space. That helps the developer or employer close the gap between what it costs to create a space and the potential return on investment.”
The cost to local government for servicing an industrial property is about 30 cents for every dollar of tax revenue generated, compared to $1.16 cost for residential property, Meidel said. Rent for industrial property is about $5 to $6 a square foot, much lower than rent for office and other property uses. Developers are more likely to be interested in projects that draw higher rents, but there is value in preserving industrial property, Meidel said.
Board members speak out
Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard, who serves on the Forward Pinellas board, said defending industrial land part of her job and she would like to give the new county incentive for industrial projects more time to work. “This county needs high wage jobs. We don’t need a whole lot more service industry jobs.”
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, also a Forward Pinellas board member, agreed that county commissioners are responsible for protecting industrial lands, but Long added that she likes the Porter project.
“It fulfills several of the major criteria that the county is focused on in terms of affordable housing, our transportation initiatives … Also for me, sustainability and resiliency is a really big deal,” Long said.
The two St. Pete City Council members who serve on the Forward Pinellas board also have differing views on the project. Council member Brandi Gabbard voted to recommend the plan, while Council member Darden Rice voted against recommending it. Rice said she was torn on the issue.
“On the one hand, this land has been vacant for a very long time and I don’t want to send a negative message to the development community,” said Rice, a mayoral candidate who chairs Forward Pinellas.
On the other hand, Rice said, she takes the preservation of industrial land very seriously.
“It reminds me of my environmentalist days where we were trying to fight for green space. Once green space is developed, you can never get it back. In this case, once we lose industrial zoned land I’m worried we might not get it back,” she said.
Rice, who was not present when the City Council approved the project at its first reading last month, said she would look at the project with “fresh eyes” when it comes back before the council in May.
Here’s the roll call vote from the Forward Pinellas board.
Julie Ward Bujalski, Dunedin mayor
David Allbritton, Clearwater vice mayor
Brandi Gabbard, St. Petersburg City Council member
Janet Long, Pinellas County commissioner
Darden Rice, St. Petersburg City Council member
Joanne Kennedy, Indian Rocks Beach mayor
Dave Eggers, Pinellas County commissioner and current commission chair
Pat Gerard, Pinellas County commissioner
Karen Seel, Pinellas County commissioner
Bonnie Noble, Kenneth City Council member
Cliff Merz, Safety Harbor vice mayor
Michael Smith, Largo commissioner