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Clearwater voters easily pass referendum allowing waterfront redevelopment

By Tracey McManus
Renderings that show proposed renovations to Coachman Park in Clearwater, including a new permanent amphitheater. The renderings come from New York City's HR&A Advisors, brought in by the city to create a master plan for its waterfront, dubbed "Imagine Clearwater." [Courtesy of HR&A Advisors]

CLEARWATER — Voters in Tuesday’s election overwhelmingly agreed to amend the City Charter and allow construction along the downtown waterfront, effectively greenlighting the city’s $55 million Imagine Clearwater redevelopment plan.

The referendum passed 75.8 percent in favor out of 15,109 votes, according to unofficial results.

"This was a grassroots effort," Mayor George Cretekos said. "I’m overwhelmed by the support. It shows people care about Clearwater and are supportive of our plan to make the downtown, Coachman Park area everybody’s second neighborhood."

Imagine Clearwater calls for reshaping Coachman Park and the waterfront to have more walkable access, gardens, a larger concert green, a gateway plaza and a winding Bluff walk with terraces, paths and views of the Intracoastal. Because the City Charter prohibited anything but open space from the Bluff to the water, most of the plan hinged on voters passing the referendum.

The plan is the city’s latest effort to revive the depressed downtown, which has struggled for decades to attract businesses, residents and daily foot traffic.

The redevelopment area covers 66 acres with the marina to the west, Osceola Avenue to the east, Drew Street to the north and Court Street to the south. The idea is the vibrance will encourage businesses to invest in empty storefronts and bring residential projects to the adjacent downtown core.

The city began negotiations last month with Stantec Consulting of Tampa to develop the design of Imagine Clearwater. The design phase could take up to a year, and construction is planned to begin early 2019.

Brian Aungst Jr., Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce vice chair of government affairs, said now that the citizens have given a vote of confidence, it is the city’s job to follow through with aggressive recruitment of residential projects to spur economic growth.

He pointed to the massively successful efforts of St. Petersburg in the early 2000s, which brought condos and apartments to Beach Drive and fed the vibrant restaurant and retail district.

"I think any private sector investor should be very excited about the fact that 75 percent of the citizens of Clearwater have consistently supported public investment in the revitalization of downtown Clearwater," Aungst said. "Downtown Clearwater has a bright future, has a future for everyone, and is open for business."

But the redevelopment has one more logistical hurdle to clear: the Legislature must pass a bill to amend a 1925 law preventing the city from relocating its concert band shell to a restricted area of the waterfront.

The 1925 Special Act, passed when the state granted Clearwater strips of uplands and submerged lands to construct the Causeway Memorial bridge, prohibits any "carnivals or shows of any character" in the 500 feet north of a boundary that runs by the bridge. That 500-foot stretch is nearly the exact location of the proposed site for the new band shell.

The Pinellas County Legislative Delegation on Nov. 1 unanimously approved the proposed bill, sponsored by Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, which will now progress to the 2018 Legislative session.

Clearwater Downtown Partnership executive director Jay Polglaze said with Tuesday’s public buy-in, he doesn’t foresee a problem.

"This is another domino that has fallen in our favor," he said.

ELECTION DAY 2017: Get the latest news and results from the Times Bay Times.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Is ‘Imagine Clearwater’ redevelopment plan downtown’s last hope? (Oct. 26, 2017).

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