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A Clearwater tale: Business and tourism on upswing

Saturday Dec. 10, 2005, turned out to be a good day for both Winter the Dolphin and the city of Clearwater. That morning, the dolphin — entangled in a crab trap off the coast of Volusia County — was rescued and transported to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where it was fitted with a prosthetic tail. The dolphin’s story — told in the 2011 film Dolphin Tale — gained international attention and kick-started a downtown resurgence:

» Before Winter, the aquarium’s attendance averaged about 80,000 a year. By 2010, attendance had grown to 200,000 and skyrocketed to more than 700,000 after the release of the movie and a renovation. This month, Clearwater residents will vote on whether to allow the city to lease downtown’s former city hall property to the aquarium, which wants to build a $160-million facility there. Clearwater Mayor George N. Cretekos says a new aquarium — coinciding with the planned Dolphin Tale sequel — could attract 2 million visitors its first year. “It would be a game changer,” Cretekos says.

» The city’s once-empty Capitol Theatre is undergoing a more than $7-million renovation downtown and is scheduled to reopen later this year. The 92-year-old theater will be managed by Ruth Eckerd Hall and is getting a restored facade, an updated stage, more seats and new dressing rooms. The hall will host between 100 and 150 events a year, including an appearance by Jay Leno set for Feb. 9.

» The city plans to build a public boardwalk along the eastern side of Clearwater Beach — a project that officials hope will match the success of the Beach Walk promenade that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico’s western side. Beach Walk’s development has benefited beach projects such as the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa and the Sandpearl Resort.

» After 15 years of construction, the often-delayed Church of Scientology’s city-block-sized Flag Building is nearly ready for its formal opening. Cretekos says the building’s visitors and workers should boost downtown commerce, particularly for businesses along Cleveland Street.

» Two new condo projects are also bringing people downtown: The 153-unit Water’s Edge is nearly sold out, and Station Square has 25% of its 124 units left.

“Tourism is always going to be No. 1, but all of these activities show that Clearwater is becoming more economically diverse.” — Clearwater Mayor George N. Cretekos