CLEARWATER — When Frank Hibbard was termed out of Clearwater’s highest office in 2012, he didn’t go far.
The former mayor kept a close watch over city business. He spent the last seven-plus years serving on high-profile nonprofit boards: Clearwater Marine Aquarium; HEP; Ruth Eckerd Hall. A financial planner by day, his office is just five floors above city hall’s temporary home at 600 Cleveland St.
Hibbard announced this week that he wants another shot at the big job.
“I think I have a track record of leadership,” Hibbard said in an interview in his office Tuesday. “I’m certainly not a perfect leader, but hopefully can be a good one again for Clearwater.”
Although other names have been floated as potential candidates by City Hall watchers, Hibbard, 52, is the first to announce a run for mayor in the nonpartisan March 2020 elections. No matter who else joins him, he’ll be a formidable candidate with the name recognition that comes with nearly two decades of experience around city government.
In a wide-ranging interview, Hibbard discussed how he hopes to lead Clearwater through an era of foundational change. Longtime city manager Bill Horne and city attorney Pam Akin have said they will leave their posts in 2020. The city is in the midst of Imagine Clearwater, a demanding $50 million redevelopment of the downtown waterfront.
There’s a difference between leading a city during an economic expansion and leading one during a recession. Hibbard should know: his first go-round as mayor, from 2004 to 2012, spanned a period of strong growth and the height of the Great Recession.
Hibbard says the city needs a long-term strategic plan so it can figure out its priorities should some revenue sources dry up.
“One of the things we always have to guard against is, in good times, the government tends to grow,” Hibbard said. “Then when a less prosperous time comes along, there can be unintended consequences.”
Hibbard, a senior vice president at Steward Partners in association with Raymond James, said he’s particularly concerned with how to pay for long term capital projects like Imagine Clearwater — today and into the future.
One such project that comes with major budgetary question marks is the renovation of Spectrum Field, the spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies. In addition to $16 million from its own coffers, the city has asked Pinellas County for $40 million in bed tax money.
Hibbard said even if the county does not approve the full $40 million, he sees the city getting some Pinellas dollars for the project. But anything short of the $40 million would likely force the city and the Phillies to rework their plans.
“If you look at all the potential outcomes, they could decide they want to move,” Hibbard said of the Phillies. “I think that would be a tragedy.”
The job could require Hibbard to sit on a five-person council with three new members: Himself; the winner of the Seat 2 position currently held by Jay Polglaze and the winner of Seat 3, currently occupied by Bob Cundiff. (Cundiff has not ruled out a run for mayor himself.) All of that change is going to require a consensus builder, Hibbard said.
But easily the most volatile relationship Hibbard would have to manage as mayor would be the one between Clearwater and the Church of Scientology.
Hibbard has at times been critical of the church since he left the mayor’s office. In 2015, during a spat between the church and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Hibbard told the Times, “The evidence is clearly pointing to the fact that they want the downtown core to themselves."
When asked whether he still thinks that’s true, Hibbard said, “I don’t think it’s healthy for the city for the church to own as much property as it does.”
Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to a request for comment.
The city’s tensions with Scientology are limited mostly to downtown. Hibbard said some citizens feel the city focuses too much in that area, a perception he’d like to change.
To that end, Hibbard wants to encourage Clearwater’s suburban residents to refurbish the city’s housing stock. He wants to push local businesses to have employees volunteer at schools, and improve the quality of life in Clearwater from the ground up.
When asked what he sees as his faults, Hibbard said he’ll have to be careful not to rely on old habits.
“I have to always be willing to relearn things,” Hibbard said. “You can fall back on ‘that’s the way we did it when I was around,’ and things are ever-changing.”
Contact Kirby Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.