CLEARWATER — The timeline for completing the city's 10-year plan to revitalize the waterfront and Coachman Park is being fast-tracked, with staff now proposing the majority could be realized within four years.
The city plans to hire a consultant in October to design the new Coachman Garden; the Green for concerts where there is currently a parking lot; an estuary under the Memorial Causeway; a half-mile 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.
The only portion of Imagine Clearwater now expected to drag past 2021 is the redevelopment of the City Hall site into a hotel or condos, and the mixed use project that will replace the Harborview Center in the gateway plaza, said director of engineering Michael Quillen.
While city consultants were finalizing the Imagine Clearwater plan in February, the Church of Scientology was simultaneously escalating its influence on downtown, secretly buying $26 million in property through shell companies, adding to the $250 million in property owned under its name, the Tampa Bay Times uncovered.
The church was also developing a retail and entertainment proposal, which depended on acquiring land the city has since bought, but city officials say the move to accelerate Imagine Clearwater completion was not a reaction to the church's widening influence.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the church," Mayor George Cretekos said. "I think it has to do with the momentum we realized our citizens have throughout the community, and we want to keep it going as opposed to getting it bogged down."
In order to build and maintain a vibrant waterfront park, the city is calling on residents and "neighborhood champions" to form a nonprofit conservancy that will advocate for the redevelopment, raise funds for construction and drive activity through programs and events for years to come.
Community Redevelopment Agency director Seth Taylor said that to emphasize the independence of the conservancy, the city will not be appointing board members or organizing the platform. Its creation depends on citizens taking initiative.
"It's more in the hands of the public and up to them to organize amongst themselves to decide what the makeup of the board will look like," Taylor said. "We want this to be a bottom-up, community-driven effort. We're asking for the neighborhood champions out there to take the lead on the conservancy."
Once a conservancy is formed that supports Imagine Clearwater, the city will enter into a contract with it as an official partnership with a mutual action plan, Taylor said.
Because some of the redevelopment on the bluff will require voter approval — like the relocation of Coachman Park's bandshell, and structures like a playground and the Bluff Walk —Taylor said the conservancy will be vital in advocating for passage of the referendum in November.
Taylor said the conservancy could also take on fundraising for the build-out and supporting events once it's completed.
The city last week allocated $500,000 of general funds to Imagine Clearwater, and $5 million of Penny for Pinellas one-cent sales tax money already dedicated to Coachman Park can be applied to the redevelopment.
Budget manager Kayleen Kastel said the rest of the costs, which consultants estimated could run between $31 million and $55 million, could come from future Penny revenue, the city's $6.4 million BP oil spill settlement, internal financing and bonding, and conservancy fundraising.
Conservancies have grown in popularity over the past several decades as the responsibility for urban parks shifts from the traditional government oversight to private partnerships, according to a 2015 study by the Trust for Public Land.
Before an aggressive revitalization effort by the city and private sector, Denver's 12-acre Civic Center Park was a depressed open space with no activities, crumbling buildings and "a feeling of not being safe so people wouldn't walk into it," according to volunteer Elaine Asarch.
An interior decorator at the time, Asarch helped launch the Civic Center Conservancy in 2004 after volunteering on the city's parks and recreation committee.
Over the years, the conservancy has advocated for a bond initiative that has funded infrastructure improvements; created regular activities like food trucks, yoga, festivals, concerts and movies in the park; and is projected to raise nearly $1 million in cash and in-kind donations this year.
Compared to a nearly lifeless park before the revitalization, the conservancy has helped attract 230,000 visitors for its 191 days of regular programing a year, not including city festivals, according to Civic Center Conservancy executive director Lindy Eichenbaum Lent.
"Now this park has a voice, it has a group of advocates," Lent said. "It's people coming to the realization that cities can only do so much for the public spaces, and if you do want more, citizens have to step up. And there is a return on the investment."
Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce vice president Zachary Thorn said Chamber staff had an initial meeting last week with business leaders to discuss the conservancy, but no clear leader has so far taken on the project.
Although the nonprofit would be a new concept for Clearwater, Thorn said it could be a tool for helping revitalize downtown on the city's more accelerated timeline while taking some of the burden off taxpayers.
"We're trying to facilitate a conversation about downtown," Thorn said. "You can't have an effective group like that without cooperation with whatever government entity you're working with, and all the stakeholders should be on the same page. There's so much initiative, I think the group will form itself as we go forward."
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.