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Around the State- Southwest/ Tampa Bay- Sept. 2000

What Now?
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."

In the News

DeSoto County -- The county broke ground on a $4.2-million, 50,000-sq.-ft. agri-civic center. The center will include a 34,000-sq.-ft. auditorium and an office complex for management staff, as well as a state-funded ag-extension office, part of USF's agricultural service. The 40-acre site was donated by the county's largest landholder, the Turner family. Construction should be finished by late 2001.

Polk County -- Florida First Capital Finance Corp., a Small Business Administration 504 loan program, opened for business here this summer. The non-profit corporation set up by the state to facilitate financing for small businesses operates in counties stretching from Pensacola to Miami. This is its first venture into Polk County. A typical FFCFC package includes 40% financing from FFCFC, 50% from a commercial lender and 10% from the borrower.

Port Manatee -- Port Manatee granted Houston-based Coastal Corp. a permanent right-of-way to take its proposed 744-mile natural gas pipeline through the port. The $10-million deal also includes the leasing of 190 acres of vacant land during construction. Coastal's affiliate, Gulfstream Natural Gas System, is one of three companies vying to bring gas pipelines from Alabama through the Gulf of Mexico into Florida.

Atlanta startup Global Logistics, a lumber distribution company, will lease a $6-million warehouse to be built at Port Manatee. The 150,000-sq.-ft. facility will be the port's largest. Global Logistics intends to set up operations with about 12 employees as a full-service coordination, storage and distribution company for South American lumber suppliers.

Manatee County -- Premium sunglasses manufacturer Serengeti Eyewear is being purchased by Kansas City, Mo.-based Worldwide Sports and Recreation for $43 million. There's no word on what will happen to Serengeti's 60 local employees. The company's CEO, Stephen Nevitt, will become a consultant. Worldwide Sports is the parent company of premium eyewear company Bolle and Bushnell Sports Optics, maker of telescopes, binoculars and other sports optics.

Sarasota -- City commissioners gave preliminary approval for a 10.6% property tax increase. The hike, which follows five years of declining millage rates, would add $34 to the property tax bill on a $109,000 home. The tax increase would help pay for a development services department, which the city wants to create with four full-time positions. It would also help pay the $1.6 million to buy and restore a historic federal building for city offices.

The Sarasota County School Board faces $17 million in budget cuts, which could result in more than 100 layoffs and the elimination of some school programs. The board had campaigned for a tax increase that would have raised $46 million and eased the shortfall, but the increase was voted down in a July referendum. School board members have until the end of this month to approve their final budget.

St. Petersburg -- Catalina Marketing Corp. (NYSE-POS) is expanding beyond its core supermarket electronic coupon business. A recent acquisition of Rhode Island-based HealthCare Data adds more than 20,000 pharmacies to Catalina's Health Resource Network, which provides direct-to-consumer customized health and medical information newsletters. The new network will include major drug chains Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS and Eckerd Drug, as well as pharmacies within the Albertson's grocery chain.

Tampa -- Intermedia Communications (Nasdaq-ICIX) is taking on BellSouth -- again. The homegrown communications provider filed an antitrust and fraud lawsuit against the baby bell in U.S. District Court. Intermedia Communications alleges that BellSouth has refused to allow it sufficient facilities to provide services to its customers. Intermedia also sued BellSouth for reciprocal compensation in Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama and has a suit pending in Tennessee.

Weekly Planet is merging with its former parent, Atlanta-based Creative Loafing. Weekly Planet operates alternative newspapers in Tampa and Sarasota. Creative Loafing publishes five weeklies in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., and Greenville, S.C. The combined company will be based in Tampa and have total circulation of more than 400,000, making it the third-largest chain of alternative weeklies in the U.S.

Entertainment Network, the Tampa-based company that brought us VoyeurDorm.com and DudeDorm.com, recently launched AskOJ.com, featuring O.J. Simpson live and online. For a flat fee of $9.95, the curious can log on to the site and ask the former football great about the 1994 murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. ENI, an international supplier of Internet content, offered a $100,000 reward leading to the arrest of the killer or killers as part of the promotion for its latest site.