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Thursday, Jul 31, 2014

Competing interest groups may hold Clearwater back, panel says


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— A planning expert with the Urban Land Institute summed up downtown Clearwater's decades-long struggle for redevelopment with a joke.

One day the mayor of Clearwater discovered a bottle washed up on the beach with a genie trapped inside.

The genie, after being freed, offered a customary wish, at which point the mayor produced a map of the Middle East and asked for long-term peace in the troubled region.

That request was too difficult, said the genie, who asked the mayor to make another wish.

The mayor replied, “My wish is for a revitalized and redeveloped downtown Clearwater,” ULI panelist Doug Wrenn said.

“The genie pauses for a minute and says, 'Can I take another look at that map?' ”

The punch line got a laugh from the large group of elected officials, city staff and business owners in the conference room at the Clearwater Beach Hilton on Friday morning.

They had gathered to hear the results of nearly 100 interviews conducted by the expert panel gathered from around the country for a week-long study commissioned by the city of Clearwater.

Wrenn's anecdote seemed to strike a chord among those who have been dreaming of schemes to invigorate the city's quiet urban core since traffic to the beach was routed off its central business district many years ago.

The city has spent more than $30 million to spruce up Cleveland Street. Ruth Eckerd Hall is driving a renewed evening crowd at the refurbished Capitol Theater.

Plans continue to move slowly forward for a multimillion-dollar aquarium on the bluff where an aging City Hall currently commands dramatic water views.

But despite these efforts and many more, questions remain about whether downtown ever will reach the critical mass of people needed to keep constant activity on the streets and fill empty storefronts.

In short, the seven-member panel concluded that division between downtown's competing interest groups is the No. 1 thing that will blunt its potential to become an urban waterfront destination for residents and millions of tourists that flock to the nearby beach.

Downtown is split into numerous subgroups, pro-development entrepreneurs, retired condo dwellers, a growing Hispanic community, but the biggest impediment to growth is a lack of unity between the Clearwater's two biggest landowners: the local government and the Church of Scientology.

“If these two entities, with all their influence and sway, cannot work together, they cannot reasonably expect anyone else in the community to do so,” said Brad Rogers, an urban development advisor from Baltimore.

Downtown's two biggest players have a history of strained relations and many in town have cast a suspicious eye on the church, which has created an enormous footprint in the past 40 years with buildings like the recently finished Flag Building dominating the skyline.

Although much of the church's downtown real estate is closed to non-members, Rogers said cooperation between city and church officials has led to economic success in the past, exemplified in a heavily-trafficked Starbucks at the corner of Fort Harrison Avenue and Cleveland.

“What is the next Starbucks?” said Rogers, noting that local church leaders had helped attract the business.

“If you find that, you're on the path to winning.”

The scope of the panel's report included everything from renovating the city's faded single-family housing stock to building a high-class, waterfront restaurant with views of Coachman Park.

There's more demand for multifamily rental housing near downtown, which would spur retail activity, up to 600 more units within the next five years, but Clearwater is competing with other popular urban centers in the Tampa Bay area for development capital, said Pam Minich, a Houston real estate consultant.

“Builders and developers can be very choosy,” she said.

The panel endorsed plans for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to build its sprawling new home for movie star dolphin Winter on the city hall site, but said it should be tied into a broader master plan being drafted for bringing more public activity to the adjacent park lands.

Water taxis could take tourists from the waterfront park to the beaches and back, while a restaurant and other amenities would attract more boaters to stop along the Intracoastal Waterway.

On the eastern part of Cleveland Street, once home to a short-lived farmer's market driven by the large Mexican community, the city could build a public plaza to host an ongoing outdoor market.

A transit hub plotted in the Greenlight Pinellas plan, set for a countywide vote this fall, is also critical for future growth, the panelists said.

In the short-term, the team suggested the city devote an assistant manager position solely to enacting its decade-old master development plan.

Also, rather than attempting to work individually with a hodgepodge of business and civic groups, a representative from each group should meet under a larger umbrella organization to build consensus.

Mayor George Cretekos said the institute's presentation should be viewed as a call for private businesses to step in following the significant financial investments the city has made in the past several years.

“Now the private sector needs to step up and show that same commitment that the city has,” he said.

The mayor is hopeful the report will underscore the great need for the city and the Church of Scientology to open up better lines of communication.

“It needs to communicate with the city and the city with the church, together, not one going in one direction and somebody going in another,” he said.

Church officials indicated they were committed to working together for the good of the city.

“We have committed many thousands of volunteer hours into charitable and humanitarian programs and hundreds of millions of dollars into the City and the community because we care,” church spokeswoman Pat Harney wrote in an statement after the presentation.

“We are committed to its well-being and future as well as working with others who have the same vision.”

The institute has conducted numerous urban studies at many sites in the Tampa Bay area, including St. Petersburg's waterfront district. The city of Clearwater paid $125,000 for its downtown study.

 

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277

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