CLEARWATER — A new 7-Eleven that just opened up along the main route to Clearwater Beach is sitting on a parcel of land that has a long and colorful history.
It's the site where a historic Clearwater train station was located from the 1920s until it was bulldozed a few years ago. It also was the site of privately operated "Freedom Park," where former City Commissioner Fred Thomas displayed stone tablets engraved with the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Ten Commandments.
Thomas got into a legal fight with the city for the right to open a gas station and convenience store on his property. The battle lasted nearly two years before Thomas prevailed.
After all that drama, the end result is that Clearwater has another 7-Eleven and beachgoers have another place to gas up.
"I think 7-Eleven did a nice job and built a nice building," said Thomas, who no longer owns the property. "It's a good addition to downtown."
The store sits between Court and Chestnut streets, where the two thoroughfares meet at downtown's East Street.
In 2003, after it became clear that the new Memorial Causeway bridge would shift beach traffic to Court Street, Thomas decided to put a gas station there to capitalize on the new route. The store would be the last chance to get gas and goods before beach-bound drivers reached the bridge.
The city turned him down, claiming that a gas station would clash with its vision of a downtown pedestrian district. "We're trying to encourage people to walk," said the city's planning director at the time.
Thomas appealed, arguing that the city was enforcing its rules incorrectly. He pointed out that Court and Chestnut streets are definitely not a pedestrian district.
"That's why they lost the case," Thomas said this week, years after a circuit judge overturned the city's ruling. Thomas is recovering from a series of strokes, but he still keeps track of developments in Clearwater through his affiliation with the group Save the Bayfront.
As for city officials, they've moved on from the gas-station battle.
"It's always been the city's intent not to have that type of use in the core of downtown," said City Manager Bill Horne. "We obviously lost that fight and we embrace the future with it there, and we're now beyond that controversy."
One of Clearwater's first train stations was built on this spot in the early 1920s. "We know it was there at least in 1922," said local historian Mike Sanders.
It started as a passenger station for the Seaboard Airline Railway, which ran a line through downtown Clearwater. In 1995, when Thomas bought the quarter-acre parcel for $89,000, the old station functioned as an Amtrak ticket office where passengers could catch a bus to an Amtrak train station in Tampa.
The small depot was considered historical, but it was never listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the last of five old-time depots that used to be in Clearwater.
Thomas, a self-made millionaire and founder of the Pinch-a-Penny pool supply chain, had originally hoped to turn the building into a welcome center and envisioned working with the Clearwater Historical Society.
That didn't work out, so he opened a restaurant called the Clearwater Train Station. Next to it, he put in Freedom Park, a lushly landscaped spot with shade trees, picnic tables and 10-foot-tall granite slabs inscribed with things like the U.S. Constitution.
But the restaurant ended up being "a mediocre business," he said. He closed it in 2003 and let the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens operate a thrift shop there for a couple of years until he demolished the building in 2005 to make way for the convenience store.
In 2007, Thomas sold a 1-acre assemblage of property there to a Pennsylvania company, DiCicco Development, for $1.8 million. DiCicco struck a deal with 7-Eleven.
"It's a shame. Fred wanted to save the old building and he tried for a while," said Sanders, the historian. "It's not pleasant to see your town lose its last train depot, but there are other local depots still functioning, notably in Dunedin and Tarpon Springs."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.