OLDSMAR — Prior to being elected in March 2019, Oldsmar Mayor Eric Seidel said the development of the downtown district was his top priority. When the City Council agreed to allow a local developer to build a boutique hotel, complete with rooftop bar and parking garage, on a portion of the 10-acre parcel adjacent to City Hall in May 2019, it appeared his campaign promise would soon become a reality.
But issues with the Simone Development Group arose from the start as the local, family-owned hotel builders presented preliminary plans that did not include the rooftop bar, something the council stressed was a priority for the project. According to officials, things went downhill from there, leading Seidel to issue an ultimatum to Simone late last year.
“I’m ready to move on,” he said Sept. 3. “And I don’t say that lightly.”
While the council ultimately voted 3-2 to stick with Simone rather than move to the second-ranked proposal, they officially pulled the plug on the partnership during the council’s first meeting of 2021.
“I’m extremely disappointed we’re making this decision,” Seidel said Jan. 5, “but you reach a point in the negotiations where you realize you’re not going in the right direction.”
Vice Mayor Katie Gannon, who along with Council member Andrew Knapp opposed sticking with Simone in September, said “there was a time we were all extremely excited to receive this proposal from this group … but I think it’s time to move on, and I’m excited to do so.”
Council member Linda Norris, who ranked Simone at the top of a list of five potential site developers during the initial process, agreed. “We gave them multiple chances and they have no one to blame but themselves,” she said. “I feel bad, but it’s time to move on.”
With that the council voted 5-0 in favor of dissolving the partnership with Simone. During a subsequent discussion the council outlined the next step for the project.
“When we did the rankings, we said we’d go to the second-ranked developer if the first one didn’t work out, and we have since confirmed that Commonwealth (Hotels) is definitely interested,” Seidel said of the runner-up. “So I recommend we go to No. 2.”
Seidel’s fellow council members agreed, and they also agreed to allow other bidders to submit proposals to develop the rest of the site.
When contacted for comment afterward, Simone Development president and founder Paul Simone, and his son, Eric, the company’s vice-president, expressed shock and disappointment at the council’s decision.
“I hired a lawyer and I’m filing a lawsuit,” an irate Paul Simone said by phone days after the decision.
“I spent three years and a lot of money on this. I have everything in writing and they changed everything.”
Eric Simone added, “We’re not happy. My father and I feel we’ve been taken advantage of.”
According to the Simones, the problems stemmed from the city changing the terms of the original agreement.
“What happened was we negotiated the final terms, in writing, we agreed to it, and when we got the development agreement they added a $65,000 annual maintenance fee to a garage that hasn’t been designed yet, and they said we had to pay $20,000 per parking space instead of $2,000,” Paul Simone said.
“It’s pathetic what they did,” Eric Simone added. “You don’t drag someone through the entire process to squeeze us at the end. We agreed to terms and they’re not holding up their end of the deal.”
According to Seidel, the sides were still engaged in the negotiation process when the terms changed, though he admitted the city did make an error when it came to the price per space.
“He is correct about in the first draft that was sent over there was an error, but it wasn’t signed, and it was a first draft,” he said. “We were kind of amazed because of a clerical error they’re not going to pay.”
While it’s not clear which side is right or wrong, what is clear is the city is moving on with the downtown development without the Simone Group.
“I’ve been a trooper for these guys,” Seidel said of the family-owned company that has built all five hotels in Oldsmar. “But I think Commonwealth is a completely different animal and I think we should be able to get a deal done very quickly.”
For his part, Paul Simone said he would still be willing to work with the city despite the disagreement.
“I still want to build this hotel,” he said. “It’s not a personal thing. It’s business. And after everything I’ve done, why can’t we sit down and work this out?”