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Clearwater voters give blessing for waterfront redevelopment. Now what?

By Tracey McManus
JIM DAMASKE | Times Now that voters passed a referendum allowing construction on the downtown waterfront, city officials can begin implementing the $55 million Imagine Clearwater redevelopment plan. The design phase could take up to a year and construction is expected to begin early 2019

CLEARWATER — City residents made one thing very clear on Tuesday. They are ready for a new and improved downtown waterfront, voting 75.8 percent in favor of allowing construction on the charter-protected area.

So what happens now?

Residents won’t see much action over the next year, as the $55 million Imagine Clearwater plan to reshape the waterfront and Coachman Park goes to the drawing board. The city has hired Stantec Consulting of Tampa to design the project, a process that could take 12 months.

"It will feel like a lull even though we’ll be doing a lot of work behind the scenes," said Assistant City Manager Jill Silverboard.

City officials have committed to getting most of the construction done by 2021, six years earlier than the original timeline outlined by consultants who created the plan.

That will include: converting Coachman Park into a garden with a playground, picnic area and fishing pier; building a Green for concerts where the 429-space parking lot behind the Harborview Center is now; an estuary under the Memorial Causeway; a winding Bluff Walk with shaded paths, gardens and terraces; and a gateway plaza with water features and event space at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue.

Construction is expected to begin early 2019.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: DETAILS OF IMAGINE CLEARWATER PLAN

The only portion that is planned to drag past 2021 is the redevelopment of the city-owned Harborview and City Hall sites bordering the waterfront, which consultants recommended replacing with retail and residential projects.

The city can demolish both buildings, and begin work building the public plaza with a splash pad and pavilion on the Harborview site, but any private development like a condo, hotel or restaurant would have to return to voters for another referendum.

Silverboard said the question of how to pay for this transformation will be narrowed down in the upcoming 2018-19 budget planning process.

The city allocated $500,000 of general funds in April to Imagine Clearwater, and $5 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax funding set aside for Coachman Park was redirected to the plan. How the estimated $49.5 million balance will be covered is still up in the air, but it could be paid for through future Penny revenue, the city’s $6.4 million BP oil spill settlement, internal financing and bonding, and fundraising by a nonprofit conservancy the consultants proposed creating to market Imagine Clearwater.

Momentum behind creation of the conservancy has all but died, however.

Following the recommendation of the consultants, former Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor in April proposed the conservancy should be organized by the public or non-government agencies.

Conservancies have grown in popularity over the past several decades to advocate for urban parks and support community-centered programming. The structure helped revive Denver’s 12-acre Civic Center Park by creating a group of stakeholders that pushed for a bond initiative to pay for infrastructure improvements, run regular activities like food trucks and festivals, and raise money to keep it going.

However no citizen or organization has stepped up locally. The idea was that a conservancy would organize to advocate for the passage of Tuesday’s referendum, but that activism never came.

And since Taylor resigned last month, the city is lacking a CRA director, who oversees redevelopment and business recruitment in most of downtown. The city has advertised the position, and Silverboard says she hopes to have a short-list of finalists by next month.

The role of a conservancy post-referendum would be to raise money for the infrastructure build-out and to plan and pay for programming and events once the waterfront is redeveloped. Whether that community-driven effort will come together is unclear.

"It’s still on the to-do list, but it’s not one of the top priorities at this time," Silverboard said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Is ‘Imagine Clearwater’ redevelopment plan downtown’s last hope?

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