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Residents, city work to create village center at Ringling Shopping Center

Even as the city expresses optimism about the future of the Ringling Shopping Center, questions from residents and the property owners create a foggier outlook.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. June 18, 2015
After creating a Facebook page opposing a Walmart at the Ringling Shopping Center, Holly Dennis is optimistic the city is on the same page as residents in the area.
After creating a Facebook page opposing a Walmart at the Ringling Shopping Center, Holly Dennis is optimistic the city is on the same page as residents in the area.
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When a friend directed Holly Dennis to a Facebook page advocating for the revitalization of the Ringling Shopping Center, she was excited.

The strip mall, which has sat almost entirely vacant since the city rejected a proposed Walmart at the site in 2013, is near Dennis’ Paver Park home and office. The idea of increased activity in the area east of downtown appealed to Dennis, and she saw the shopping center as an opportunity to create an urban village that offered a mix of uses and services for the surrounding community.

As she continued to monitor the page, however, she noticed a trend. Several of the posts made by the page, created by a public relations firm hired by the property owners, offered endorsements for the 2012 Walmart proposal. Posts made by people who said they still didn’t want to see a Walmart on the property disappeared — including a post Dennis made herself.

“I posted something to the effect of, 'Is this a Revitalize Ringling Shopping Center page, or is it a Citizens for Walmart page?'” Dennis said. “All of us who said we didn't want the Walmart, our comments were deleted from the page.”

Eventually, Dennis was moved to action. She created her own Facebook page, “We Don’t Want Walmart at Ringling Shopping Center,” which has gathered 472 likes since June 10. She also created an online petition, collecting 319 signatures in six days in opposition to that particular business.

“We live in this neighborhood, and we agree that we are tired of looking at the blight,” the petition states, “but we feel there are a substantial number of residents in this community that do NOT want a Walmart.”

As the property owners angle for more favorable regulations to encourage redevelopment and the city weighs the future of the land, residents such as Dennis are closely monitoring any developments at the commercial center. The challenge for them is navigating two separate opinions on how the plaza should evolve.

“We want something there,” Dennis said. “We don't want a big-box retail store like Walmart.”

Zone Theory

On Monday, the City Commission discussed its response to the latest in a line of legal actions undertaken by the Ringling Shopping Center owners. In addition to a pair of lawsuits contesting the Walmart rejection, the owners have also made a claim under the Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act, alleging the city’s action unduly devalued the property by $8.4 million.

Even before that discussion, Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell has begun calling for the city to rezone the property to encourage the development of a mixed-use project. On Monday, the rest of the City Commission echoed those desires, unanimously approving a proposed deal that could lead to the rezone of the shopping center.

Commissioners felt their proposed deal, if accepted by the property owners, would produce desirable results for adjacent neighborhoods and the city as a whole.

“It's all the things we said would make our city more vibrant and bring in the economic development we want,” Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said.

Although City Attorney Robert Fournier said the merits of the Harris Act claim are flimsy, he said the city had an opportunity to re-energize an area it would like to see redeveloped anyway — and to gain an advantage in legal proceedings that have been ongoing since the Walmart denial.

In the proposed deal, the city would begin the process of rezoning the shopping center property, changing the land classification from Community Shopping Center – Neighborhood to Downtown Edge and Downtown Neighborhood Edge. Although the changes would allow for the same use at the site that was denied in the 2013 Walmart proposal, Fournier said existing zoning regulations would prevent the development of a traditional big box store.

Before the city’s vote, a group of residents — including Dennis — spoke out against the Walmart. Within that contingent, there were varying degrees of opinion. Some were just opposed to changes that would allow for a big-box store, but others were opposed to any changes to the existing zoning.

In an ideal world, Dennis envisioned a project that offered connectivity to nearby residential areas and Payne Park, with some residential units, a variety of smaller local stores and a business like Detwiler’s Farm Market anchoring the space.

After the city’s vote Monday, she believes the commission and residents are on the same page. As a result, the Facebook page has been rebranded as “Urban Village for Ringling Shopping Center.”

“Our vision ... is an Urban Village that emphasizes the public realm, walkability, mixed-uses, community, diversity, and quality over quantity,” the page states. 

Fournier is in the process of developing a list of acceptable uses under the proposed new zoning, and said one particular business could not be ruled out. The rezoning process would be subject to public input and eventual commission approval, though the board expressed positive opinions about those changes independent of any legal ramifications they might have.

Still, under the Harris Act, the city is required to proffer a settlement proposal. If the owners were to reject the offer and proceed to trial, Fournier said the city could recover attorney’s fees if their argument prevailed and the judge felt the settlement was reasonable and would have resolved the dispute.

Private Party

Now, the property owners are in a position to decide whether to accept the city’s offer. Despite a recent push to revitalize the shopping center, owner Louis Doyle sent a letter to the City Commission last week discouraging them from approving the proposed settlement. He has advocated for a formal mediation process to avoid the public input that he believes led to the derailing of the Walmart proposal.

“In this situation, mediation could be used to resolve all matters simultaneously … and would not be subject to all the diversions of political theatrics we have seen over the past decade,” Doyle wrote in an email prior to Monday’s meeting. “Energy could be focused solely on the two sides (the City and me) rolling up our sleeves and working it out.”

Fournier said the city would be willing to go through mediation with the property owners, but said any changes to the zoning of the property would eventually have to go through a public vetting process. If the city did seek a rezone and comprehensive plan change following an agreement with the owners, the city would act as the applicant, allowing the property owners to stay out of the public hearing process if they so desired.

Doyle has characterized the opponents to the Walmart as a vocal minority. Via the Facebook page, the property owners have gathered several testimonials from nearby businesses and residents endorsing redevelopment and the Walmart proposal. Doyle said those who associated this push for revitalization with Walmart were creating a circus, and cited that as a reason for preferring the path of mediation.

“At this point, this has nothing to do with Walmart!” Doyle wrote. “We don't even know if they would even consider coming back.”

Dennis scoffed at the idea that only a minority of residents opposed a Walmart east of downtown. She said the impact would reach beyond just the center's immediate surroundings — that she saw the negative effects extending to Main Street businesses and the city as a whole.

“I've seen small towns relent to these types of stores,” Dennis said. “You can't go back; there's no changing it. Once the old country store is gone, it ain't comin' back.”


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