CLEARWATER — The perennial question of what to do with downtown Clearwater is getting another workout this week.
A group of seven experts with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research group based in Washington, D.C., has spent the week immersing themselves in the city's downtown.
They've seen a mix of promising activity and empty storefronts. They've interviewed about 100 people, meeting with all of downtown's major players — business owners, landlords, government officials, the Church of Scientology, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Capitol Theatre.
The city is paying the institute $125,000 to provide an assessment of downtown, as well as suggestions for improvements. The institute's experts have done the same thing in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pasco County in recent years.
Once Clearwater's City Council digests the institute's findings, it intends to come up with an action plan.
"We want to get a fresh perspective, a different set of eyes looking at downtown," said City Manager Bill Horne.
The panel of outside experts was introduced to a crowd of downtown leaders this week at the Capitol Theatre. That's where the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, a volunteer group dedicated to making downtown more vibrant, was holding its annual awards ceremony.
"You and I know that doing business in downtown Clearwater is sometimes a challenge," Mayor George Cretekos told a crowd of about 150. He praised business owners for sticking with it.
The mayor noted that the city's $30 million investment in public improvements on Clearwater Beach had helped revitalize the beach's tourist district. But he bluntly acknowledged that the same amount of city investment downtown, plus $10 million to renovate the Capitol Theater, hasn't achieved the same results.
Still, the Downtown Partnership crowd remains passionate about the potential of the city's Cleveland Street District.
They're especially keen on expanding a tech sector of nearly two dozen companies that employ several hundred workers in downtown's three high-rise office buildings. They're heartened that the city recently approved the construction of 255 apartments at Prospect Lake, at the east end of downtown.
Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Downtown Partnership, envisions a future of young tech professionals occupying those apartments and walking to work.
One Clearwater tech company won two different awards from the Downtown Partnership.
AutoLoop, which develops customer engagement strategies for auto dealers nationwide, won the partnership's business sustainability award and its technology/innovation award.
The company started with three employees in a small office on S Fort Harrison Avenue. It has expanded to 137 employees in the 11-story Bank of America building on Cleveland Street and 100 employees in Houston.
"California has the Silicon Valley," said AutoLoop president Pat Kelly, "but we're witnessing what we think is the beginning of Silicon Beach."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.