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Clearwater council candidates diverge on downtown in first debate

CLEARWATER — Between four candidates running for two City Council seats, real estate broker John Funk positioned himself as an outlier at the election’s first debate Monday.

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Responding to a question about whether they support the city’s $55 million waterfront redevelopment plan Imagine Clearwater, Seat 4 candidates David Allbritton and Tom Keller said they are behind the vision and want it to progress quickly.

Seat 5 incumbent Hoyt Hamilton agreed, saying it’s a doable plan voters overwhelmingly approved.

But Funk, challenging Hamilton for Seat 5, proposed a plan of his own: convince a private developer to turn a series of buildings with multiple owners along Drew Street into an outlet mall.

"I’d like to see us focus on being development friendly for a specific commercial project," said Funk, who brought blown-up images of outdoor malls, and his 8-year-old son Ryan, to the stage.

The March 13 election comes as Clearwater embarks on several projects aimed at revitalizing downtown in the coming years. The Clearwater Downtown Partnership’s debate Monday at the Capitol Theatre kicked off the election season. Another forum is planned for 7 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.

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Funk was also the only candidate to resoundingly back a local version of SkyTran, a proposed magnetic levitation elevated transportation system, to address traffic congestion between downtown and Clearwater Beach.

But SkyTran has never been built anywhere. That’s why Hamilton said he was not willing to let Clearwater be the guinea pig. He noted gondola cable cars, also being pitched locally, are a proven technology.

Allbritton, a retired contractor, said bus rapid transit is a better option but that it must be paired with better parking downtown, like the proposed parking garage.

Keller, an advertising salesman, said he does not want any transit option to fall on taxpayers and advocated for the existing water taxi and bus system. He also said once the city builds the downtown garage, he believes meters should be taken away and street parking made free.

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Candidates agreed the city must improve communication with the Church of Scientology, downtown’s largest property owner. Asked if they supported residential development west of Osceola Avenue, without being given specifics, Keller said yes, Allbritton no, Hamilton no and Funk said "it depends."

To make Clearwater more business friendly, Funk said he would "get elected" and push his Drew Street proposal. Hamilton said "if you know how to go about it, it’s not hard to get it done in Clearwater" but the process can be improved. Allbritton said permitting and licensing should be made easier. And Keller said the city should do "a better job at selling ourselves" by branding and marketing.

Three candidates said they support the city’s incentive program, which offers $250,000 to businesses to open downtown. Funk, however, said he’d want incentives to lure a developer to his Drew Street proposal, which has not been approved by the city or presented publicly to property owners.

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: CLEARWATER CITY COUNCIL CANDIDATE PROFILES

SEAT 4: Clearwater City Council candidate David Allbritton touts track record in civic life

SEAT 4: Clearwater City Council Candidate Tom Keller says he’s a voice for the ordinary resident

SEAT 5: Clearwater City Council candidate John Funk: City needs better planning

SEAT 5: Clearwater City Council candidate Hoyt Hamilton: Experience is key for critical next term

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