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A Downtown Catalyst

Developer Bob Blackerby has catapulted himself into Panama City's limelight with a brash proposal for City Hall: Tear it down, and he'll build a new one elsewhere -- at his expense.

Blackerby also proposes to provide the new site and $750,000 toward a new library, redevelop a blighted area near downtown, build an 18- to 20-story condominium tower overlooking the Gulf and beautify the adjoining public marina. The City Commission initially gave his $110-million plan unanimous provisional approval.

"Sometimes an angel falls into your lap," says David Jackson, executive director of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

But Blackerby's ambitious project also has garnered opposition, with some residents claiming the city may be giving away more than it's getting and urging the commission to request competitive proposals.

Under Blackerby's proposal, the city would give Blackerby the property next to the marina now occupied by City Hall and the library -- buildings approaching 50 years old and largely outgrown -- for his 200-unit condominium development. In return, Blackerby would provide land for a new City Hall and library at redevelopment property he's buying for $850,000 from the CRA -- a tract that overlooks scenic Johnson Bayou but is home mainly to transients and prone to illegal dumping. Blackerby wants to convert that 11-acre redevelopment site to an urban-style residential/business village.

Downtown needs the catalyst, says Tina Rives, co-owner of Warehouse Market and Cafe. "If something like this doesn't happen, it's hard for people like us to stick around."

A 26-year developer, Blackerby, 51, made his fortune building stores for Eckerd and Publix. Four years ago, after scanning the Gulf Coast from Galveston, Texas, to Naples, he picked Panama City as the next big growth area and relocated from Mobile, Ala.

The project faces other potential snags. For one, the CRA's redevelopment site is also home to a 1926 Bay Line Railroad depot, defunct since the 1990s and probably containing asbestos and lead paint. The depot will have to be removed, but local historians want to save at least a portion.

Moving City Hall will also need approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection, due to a reverter clause in the deed giving the site, a cement-topped landfill, back to the state if it ceases to be used for a public purpose. Plus, additional funding will be needed for the $8-million library cost.

The definitive city vote could go either way, says Mayor Gerry Clemons. "Bob Blackerby is doing the best he can to improve public perception of the project."