Wheeling and Dealing:
Mel Sembler's Shopping Centers


Straight took in nearly $100 million dollars but Mel Sembler did not pocket that money. What he got out of it was being able to go to the US Senate and tell the assembled statesmen that he had been nominated for an ambassadorship because of his work in saving American children and not because he had bought his way in. But he did buy his way in. Where does Mr. Sembler get his money from anyway? Mel Sembler builds and manages shopping centers. That's where.

Attorney Roy G. Harrell, Jr. is a past president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce who has worked for Mel Sembler. In 1988 Sembler tried to build a shopping center in St. Petersburg around 38th and Park Street but 24 residents at Tyronne Village condominiums said no. They were upset enough to sign a petition to stop it. The traffic is murder down here already said condominium dweller Lewis Stofell. Besides Tyronne Mall had 150 stores just a mile away and there was Crossroads Shopping Center plus at least two other malls nearby as well. The city planning commission agreed with its citizens. It recommended against zoning the area commercial because of the existing traffic problems, another shopping center would just add to it. Even the council's own staff advised against allowing Sembler to build yet one more mall. Seems nobody wanted it but Sembler Company. After all Sembler can't make money if he doesn't build any more than a surgeon can't make money unless he cuts. That's when Sembler hired Roy Harrell who also happens to be best friends with City Council member Ron Mason. Before the City Council met to decide the issue, Roy Harrell or one of the Semblers had personally met with all nine council members. They said they would help put in two turning lanes. The final vote for the shopping center nobody wanted? 9 - 0 in favor! That's what Mel Sembler thinks about his neighbors.

In 1987 Mel Sembler teamed up with Scarborough Construction company to plan a 950 new home community in Land O'Lakes, Florida. They were even willing to build a 70 foot wide, 45 MPH roadway to get the people in and out of there. But the state Department of Transportation had been eying the land too. The state was planning a major overhaul of I-275 and needed an express roadway down there, not a little, two-lane roadway. The state was thinking more of an expensive eight lane, 70 MPH highway. When you are in the new home/shopping center building business, traffic lights and roadways are always a headache. After all why should the state build access roads for your projects just so you can make more money? Today James W. Holton, Commissioner of the Florida Transportation Commission, is on the board of directors of Straight now calling itself DFAF. In 1988 when Hillsborough County Commissioner Pick Talley left office he became president of Summer Property and Development a company he formed with Mel's son and Sembler Company president M. Steven Sembler. Ten years later when St. Petersburg councilman Larry Williams and the rest of the city council voted to grant a contract to Sembler's STP Redevelopment company to build the gigantic BayWalk shopping mall, councilman Williams did not disclose immediately that he was a former business partner with Fred Bullard, one of the principals in Sembler's redevelopment company. (The city agreed to build an $11 million parking garage for the venture.)