Largo Bus Shuttle For Gamblers Comes As News to Manager
By Leo Coughlin
Largo - Information that caught the city manager flat footed and an innovative financing idea were the highlights of the City Commission meeting Tuesday night.
In addition, the long struggle of a local developer reached fruition, triumphing over the recommendations of city staff and the Planning Board.
When Commissioner Curtis Holmes mentioned - in closing comments at the end of the meeting - that he had a query from a citizen who wanted to know about the shuttle buses the city ran to transport gamblers to the casino in Tampa.
This seemed to come as big news to one and all.
Norton Craig, the city manager, was directly asked if he knew anything about it. He declared that he knew nothing about it but solemnly intoned that he would find out about it first thing in the morning. (That recalled a similar pledge regarding signs posted at a city park last summer - a promise that never was fulfilled.)
Then a member of the Parks, Recreation and Arts Department came forth and testified that yes, indeed, the department did run buses to the gambling spot and they were a daily sellout.
Earlier in the meeting, in the discussion of spending $90,000 for artwork in the new community center, Commissioner Mary Black came up with an idea that will result - almost surely - in the expenditure being financed by private money.
Her idea? That the pieces of artwork that will be inlaid mosaics in the center be also produced as art in a signed and numbered edition and sold at $100 each. Selling 900 of the pieces of art will reimburse the money the city pays up front out of general funds.
Already, seven pieces of the art are claimed, as commission members all said they would buy one. Only 900 pieces will be produced and is almost always the case limited editions go up in value.
Significantly, the commission approved amending the Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Map that designates property on 7th and 8th Avenues Northeast from residential low to residential/office general.
That okay came on the plea of John Hopengarten, a developer who has represented Dr. Allen Finkelstein over the past 15 months.
The commission voted unanimously to reject the staff and Planning Board recommendation to not grant the change.
John Hixenbaugh, a lawyer and former city planner, was instrumental in gaining the 7-0 verdict for Finkelstein. "He had his t's crossed and i's dotted," Commissioner Curtis Holmes said.
Finkelstein wants to build a professional office building on a total of four lots along Highland Avenue, just north of Largo City Hall.
In a letter to the mayor and commission last November, Hopengarten, whose firm is Westchase Group, Inc., said, "Time and time again the Planning Department of the City of Largo has thwarted my efforts by delaying what seemed to be a simple process as set down by the City's Development Review Standards."
What was sought was a change in the land use for two single-family home lots that Finkelstein owns so that he could build his project. He owns the other two lots which front on Highland Avenue and already are residential/office general.
In his November letter Hopengarten said that he had been unsuccessful in getting in front of the Planning Board so that it could review an application in the matter that he had submitted in August, 2008.
His plea to the City Commission, Hopengarten said, was made because he had been developing projects all over the country for many years and had "prided himself in working with city staffs."
He pointed out in that letter that "I find that staff members normally help make my developments more beneficial to the community. I wish I could say the same about my experience with the staff for the City of Largo."
He wrote that in the "case of this development, I have been led around on a continuous merry go round of directions and misdirections . . .I could write volumes on what Dr. Finkelstein and I have been asked to do by staff in their conscious or unconscious efforts to delay this project."
Staff people came under intense questioning by commission members and it became clear that Hixenbaugh's contention that the Planning Board engaged in questionable procedures was true.
The commission chamber was filled with business people and residents in the neighborhood under discussion who strongly supported the Finkelstein application.
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