TARPON SPRINGS — An empty lot in the middle of downtown was the perfect place for an artificial snow pit during a Christmas festival this month.
But while the hours-long snowball fest that ensued that evening was nice, the property at 144 E. Tarpon Ave. holds much more potential, city officials believe.
That’s why city commissioners, sitting last week as the Community Redevelopment Agency, unanimously approved the draft ground lease and option to purchase agreement to sell the former Forbes property.
“This is the catalyst for what we think is going to spring up downtown and it’s just going along with what we’ve done on North Safford Trail,” said City Manager Mark LeCouris.
The city is entering into the agreement with Palm Harbor-based developer Farhod Nikjeh. This would be the third Tarpon Springs project for Nikjeh and his company, F & M Development of Pinellas, in the past two years. He developed the new Brittany Park North Townhomes on U.S. 19 and redeveloped the Riverview at Tarpon townhomes on Rivercrest Lane between Athens and Hope streets.
The CRA will pay impact and development-related fees up to $65,000 and there’s a two-year lease term on the agreement and if the option to purchase is not exercised, the city retains the property and any improvements made to it. One of those improvements would be the building shell, estimated to cost $500,000.
LeCouris and commissioners expressed their trust in Nikjeh, though, and are optimistic this project will move forward and have a positive impact.
“With this developer and his reputation I don’t think that’s going to happen,” LeCouris said of Nikjeh potentially abandoning the project. “He wouldn’t be putting all the money into the shell of a building just to give it back to us. He plans to put this building up, a nice building which meets the ambiance of downtown.”
“I think this is a win-win for the city and the developer,” said Commissioner Susan Slattery. “Hopefully it can help downtown revitalize even more than it already is now.”
Nikjeh was not present at the Dec. 17 CRA meeting because of an illness, LeCouris said.
The 8,100 square-foot project is initially expected to combine commercial and residential, with office space on the ground floor and apartments above. Construction cost estimates are pegged at $3 million, and a city report expects the direct and indirect economic impact of construction to be more than $4 million. Getting the site back on the property tax roll will bring in $16,350.
City leaders are excited about the project’s potential to bring new residents and new consumers to the downtown as well as kick starting the redevelopment of other vacant properties.
“We’ve been doing things for a long time talking about a liveable, walkable community and revitalizing our downtown,” LeCouris said.
Not going into the current deal with Nikjeh would likely leave the city in the cold with no other options for the foreseeable future, the city manager said. “Without going forward on this project we’re liable to have an empty piece of property there for many, many years to come.”