Joseph Cranney, Naples Daily News12 a.m. EDT April 14, 2016
At the west end of the large vacant lot on Central Avenue in downtown Naples, between 10th and 12th streets, Harry Miller stood over a bag of golf balls and held a black Taylor-Made pitching wedge. He faced east, looking across the 8.8-acre property and its yellowing grass. He aimed toward the makeshift pin that he and his friend set up, using a wooden stake and a plastic bag, about 100 yards away.
"They mow the grass pretty good out here," Miller said before he flubbed his wedge shot.
Miller has been coming to the lot at 1075 Central Avenue to hit golf balls since 2010, after the old Naples Daily News building was torn down. The property was later sold to a company that planned a commercial development with more than 200 condominium units.
The project was approved by the Naples City Council last March, but is now on hold after a local builder, Jon Rubinton from Lotus Construction, was removed from the company's list of managers in October.
"I have no affiliation with the project any longer and have no knowledge of what the owners are or are not doing," Rubinton said in a brief phone interview. He declined to talk specifics.
The property on Central is one of a handful of vacant commercial lots whose owners are keeping plans close to the chest, including Third Street Plaza.
George Bishop and Margaret Molleston comanage the limited liability company that owns the Central Avenue property, records show. Bishop and Molleston are the billionaire CEO and vice president, respectively, of the Texas-based GeoSouthern Energy Corp., one of the largest private producers of oil and gas in the U.S., according to Forbes magazine.
Companies managed by Bishop or Molleston spent $22.8 million to buy at least 10 Naples properties in the last two years, land records show. The properties include an airport condo and about three acres on First Avenue between 10th and 12th streets.
Attempts to reach the owners failed, but the city's planning and building departments said there are no imminent plans for Central's vacant lot. The property had a market value of $6.9 million in 2015, according to property records.
Across downtown, near the intersection of Third Street and Broad Avenue South, the Third Street Plaza is nearly empty after the property was foreclosed on and most businesses left years ago. People familiar with the property said the landlord wants to raze it, but no recent plans have been sent to the city's building or planning departments.
Attempts to reach the owners, Anne Camalier and Charles Camalier, failed.
Developments like the ones at 1075 Central and Third Street Plaza are likely slowed because of a soft first quarter in the stock and housing markets, said former Mayor John Sorey.
"Developers and people with money have a tendency to be anxious when they can't figure out what's going to happen," Sorey said.
The plaza, which has about 1.74 acres, is more than 25 years old. Most businesses closed around the time Wells Fargo Bank foreclosed on the property in 2009. Close to $5 million was owed on the mortgage.
Much of the sidewalk is stained or cracked. Ground-floor shops and upstairs offices are empty. There are wires hanging from the ceiling above the old bar at Blu Sushi, which closed several years ago. J&K Collections, a clothing store, still operates as a plaza tenant. The store sits at the east end of the plaza, facing Third Street.
"If we were in the back (of the plaza), we definitely would not be here," said Simone Turner, who works at the store.
The owners sued Collier County Property Appraiser Abe Skinner in 2011, claiming the taxes on the plaza were too high. The parties later agreed to retroactively lower the property's taxes from 2010 and 2011 and the suit was settled in 2014.
The plaza in 2015 had a market value of $4.8 million, down from $6.5 million in 2014.
In 2013, the attorney for the Camaliers, John Passidomo, said the plaza could be razed for a boutique hotel. But those plans were never submitted to the planning department, Director Robin Singer said.
Judy Bishop is the executive director of the Naples Backyard History, which left its office at the plaza at the end of 2014. Passidomo told tenants in August 2014 they shouldn't renew their leases, Bishop said.
"They basically inferred that they were going to tear it down," Bishop said.
Passidomo declined to say what the owners are planning for the plaza. He said he doesn't think demolition would occur until the Naples City Council approved a new development for the land.
Mayor Bill Barnett said there are no plans on the city's radar.
A few blocks away from the property on Central is another vacant lot — about 205,000 square feet of retail space for the Naples Square project. The retail space was approved by the council as part of the mixed-use project on Third Avenue South that will include 300 condominium units in four residential buildings.
Anthony Solomon, vice president of the Ronto Group, said construction on the second building ought to be completed in the first quarter of next year. He said his group has received interest in the retail space from restaurants, grocers and other groups, including the Gulfshore Playhouse. Plans for the retail space could be announced in the next three to six months, Solomon said.
"We're really just trying to figure out now what the most beneficial mix of tenants is for the area and the Naples Square project and what's most compatible," Solomon said.