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VENICE -- In the fight over the future of not only this city's landscape but perhaps its heart as well, a man with a bull's-eye on his back is visiting a site where concrete and steel are rising to heights that may never be seen here again.
While developers in Venice increasingly are seen as villains, the most influential developer of them all is escalating his presence with an expanding portfolio of projects ranging from homes to movie theaters. He has managed to do so because even the people who are critical of what he builds say he is an honest and charitable man who has built an enormous amount of goodwill in Venice.
Mike Miller's projects include nine-story waterfront condos along Venice's Intracoastal Waterway. He has plans to build 500 houses in northeast Venice.
With residents lamenting the September closing of southern Sarasota County's only movie theater, Miller, 49, unveiled plans for not one, but two new multiscreen theaters in Venice. When one of the area's largest employers, PGT Industries, considered moving, Miller brokered a deal that moved the company to his industrial park on annexed land at Interstate 75 and Laurel Road. Even in defeat, Miller was praised. His plan to develop 125 acres of public land along the Intracoastal was rejected by the City Council, but he was praised for seeking community input.
Yet this is no case of choosing love over money. Miller rejects the notion that he is a visionary and calls himself an opportunist. When you ask him who benefits from his company, the first people he mentions are the Waterford Companies' directors and employees.
That he receives even tepid praise from critics of growth is evidence of both his power and his reputation for honesty in a city whose future is being debated in a series of comprehensive planning meetings and on at least two community Weblogs, not to mention at nearly every City Council meeting.
"I think he's doing things on the up and up," says Don O'Connell, the former city judge in Venice who is often critical of the city's growth policies. "I have a favorable impression of him, but that doesn't mean I approve of all the things he's doing."
To be certain, Miller is doing a lot.
Since 1987, his company has built more than 2,000 houses in the Venice area and recently has expanded his home building …