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Clearwater's departing downtown manager shares thoughts on its future

CLEARWATER — Courtney Orr, Clearwater's downtown manager since 2008, left the job this week to return to her home state of Indiana.

Her duties included marketing the downtown, recruiting new businesses, managing events and helping to run programs designed to aid merchants.

She leaves on amicable terms; the City Council recently praised her work at a public meeting. However, Orr will be the first to acknowledge that parts of downtown Clearwater are far from robust. The empty storefronts and lack of foot traffic along stretches of Cleveland Street speak for themselves.

On her way out, the Times asked her about downtown's future, the Church of Scientology's impact on the district, and the challenges of dealing with some of downtown's landlords. Here's the conversation:

Why are you leaving?

My husband and I have a young son, and it's important to us to put him where his family is. All of our family is in Indiana — both sets of his grandparents and a large extended family.

You were brought in to help make the Cleveland Street District a place where people can socialize, dine and shop. How's that going?

Unfortunately, with the economic downturn, it was a bit of a challenge to bring in the retail and restaurants. But the infrastructure and the plan are in place so when the economy does turn around, we're well-positioned to bring them in.

What's been your biggest success?

Keeping the momentum going. I don't think it ever became a decline situation. No one has ever given up. Just because the economy wasn't too much on our side, we still had the belief that this will become a vibrant downtown. . . . Now the Capitol Theatre, this new cornerstone for downtown, is going into its renovation early next year. And then there's Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure (an attraction in the Harborview Center).

The block with the Capitol Theatre is much busier than the other end of Cleveland Street downtown, which is more empty. Can that success spread?

We've achieved a little in the 400 block, which is also near Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure. We're going to run out of real estate there soon, so it's going to have to migrate. It's a gradual process. Restaurant and retail owners want to be where the vibrancy is.

What does downtown need most?

Residential. We need more people living here. Water's Edge and Station Square (condominium towers) are 90 and 70 percent full. There are a lot of new residents in downtown. We could use a few hundred more.

How does the Church of Scientology's presence downtown affect things?

In retail and restaurant recruitment, I think there's just a question out there: Does that affect business? I know there's hearsay on the street that if you're not a church member, your business won't be supported by church members. But I don't find that to be the case. I think the church members support the businesses down here.

A couple of downtown landlords have a reputation for being challenging to deal with. What's your take on that?

I do hope the property owners will be reasonable in what they're requesting in the way of rent, and understanding that we are in different times. Now may be the time they have to ease back on those rates to get the occupancy in there. Once this downtown gets to the position where we all know it can be, those landlords will be able to get the higher rates that they think they should be able to set.

Parting thoughts?

We'll be back to visit and look at all the improvements that I know will be made here.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Clearwater's departing downtown manager shares thoughts on its future 08/24/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 24, 2012 6:55pm]
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