Updated 12 months ago
Clearwater voters strike down an ambitious downtown plan and deal city leaders a major blow.
By Stacie Kress Booker
Developers had big plans to transform Clearwater's dormant downtown waterfront into a vibrant urban core for the city. But residents would have no part of it and in a July referendum struck down a proposed deal to lease city property to the developers. What's next now that city leadership has been handed what amounts to a vote of no-confidence?
One answer is that development will proceed, but on a smaller scale. "Private development isn't drying up," says Assistant City Manager Bob Keller. Some bite-size private projects in the works: A Sarasota developer is negotiating with the city to build townhomes in the middle of downtown. There are also plans for a 50-unit hotel catering to business travelers. And two other items on the July ballot, an expansion of the public library and a transfer of city property to Calvary Baptist Church, will proceed.
But there's nothing on the horizon with the potential city-changing impact of the $300-million pedestrian-oriented master plan by West Palm developers George de Guardiola and David Frisbie. The plan included townhomes, stores and restaurants, an amphitheater and a multiplex cinema along the waterfront, known as the "bluff." The referendum pitted the current city administration against a group of nine former city commissioners spearheaded by Fred Thomas, founder of pool supply company Pinch-a-Penny. The hot point: the proposed 99-year lease of public waterfront property to the developers for $1 a year. Opponents charged the city was giving away its protected land. The opposition also played on citizens' uneasiness with the Church of Scientology, which some say had too strong a presence in public meetings on the plan. Mayor Brian Aungst disputes claims by Thomas and his colleagues that they're not against development and blames Thomas' opposition group with leaving downtown in its present dormant state.
No alternative plan has emerged. And the departure of City Manager Mike Roberto, who resigned shortly after the referendum's defeat, leaves the city without an official game plan. The controversial city manager who drew praise for his progressive vision for the city as well as criticism for his methods in implementing it had brought the developers to the table originally. His office played a key role in selling the plan first to the city government and then to the voters.
Now business interests are left to ponder the future. "We don't have time for political infighting," says Bob Molsick, chief financial officer of IMRglobal Corp., an information technology company. IMR is one of the city's larger employers and has a big stake in downtown -- two years ago, the company bought city land in a dilapidated area and invested $30 million in a new multi-building facility, which today houses 350 employees. Since IMR recruits most of its workers from outside Florida, Molsick says the company really needs to sell people on Clearwater and is concerned that the referendum's defeat will make recruitment efforts more difficult. Molsick says the company plans to add 200 more workers in the next six months and that "downtown redevelopment would have made it that much easier."
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