WHAT TO DO WITH THE HARBORVIEW CENTER?
For years, people asked when the Harborview Center would be torn down. Downtown Clearwater's defunct convention hall closed in 2009, was emptied in 2010 and slated for demolition soon after. Last summer, the city paid more than $600,000 to force the Harborview's last tenant to leave.
Then a few things changed. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium opened its movie-set tour, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, on the Harborview's second floor. The Armed Forces Military Museum considered moving in. The question became: Would the Harborview still be torn down? And if not, how long did it have left?
City leaders once so ready for the wrecking ball are now preaching patience. If the movie-set tour is as successful as the aquarium predicts, downtown will gain a powerful magnet and the Harborview will pay for itself.
But others aren't cheering the Harborview's resurrection. Critics slam the center as ugly, decrepit and a waste of the waterfront bluff. One group wants to tear up the center and its sea of parking spaces to expand Coachman Park.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE BELLEVIEW BILTMORE?
No formal plans have been submitted to the town of Belleair, but the owners have made it pretty clear they want to raze most of the historic hotel to make way for townhomes.
Miami investors bought the property about a year ago. They're still hammering out details of their plans, which could include as many as 180 homes on the 20-acre site.
Before they can move forward, they'll have to persuade town leaders to let them flatten most of the 115-year-old hotel, which was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Meanwhile, they say, the hotel is still on the market.
Years ago, when the Biltmore was at risk, many pushed to save it. The town of about 4,000 adopted a historic preservation ordinance to protect it. But the structure's rundown appearance and the lackluster economy may have shifted public opinion.
Ultimately, because of that ordinance, the burden will be on the owners to prove they have little choice but bring in the wrecking ball. There's a chance they'll submit a request for that this month.
The Town Commission will have the final say. Residents of the upscale enclave will have plenty of opportunities to weigh in at public meetings. Their reaction will likely have a major impact on the Biltmore's future.
WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THAT BIG OPEN SPACE ON CLEARWATER BEACH?
Drive south at the beach roundabout and it's one of the first things you'll see: a great expanse of nothing, Florida's most expensive parking lot.
In the boom times of 2004, philanthropist and entrepreneur Kiran Patel turned heads when he bought the 3-acre site for $40 million. He pledged to build a 15-story resort for $250 million.
But as the market crashed, those plans seemed to vanish. In 2008, to appease angry city officials and extend his construction deadline, Patel paid to turn the land into a parking lot.
Now, eight years after it began, the project may be back in motion. At a Community Development Board meeting this month, a new plan surfaced to build two hotels: a 300-room Renaissance Resort and a 150-room Residence Inn.
Part of the new proposal, though, involves delaying Patel's deadline: this time, to 2015.
Whether the City Council, which has skewered the project in the past, will consent to another delay remains anybody's guess. But it could make all the difference for some of the beach's priciest land.
WILL PINELLAS VOTERS AGAIN APPROVE A PROPERTY TAX HIKE FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS?
They did it in 2004. They did it in 2008. They did it both times by big margins. But there are real fears the vote may be close this time.
The reasons are obvious: Everybody's pinching pennies. Voters are in a bad mood. And in the past few years, the district hasn't exactly been clicking along smoothly. Budget cuts forced unpopular decisions. Leadership turmoil undermined public confidence.
But for voters, here's the rub: A referendum that goes down in flames will hurt, badly. The half-mill hike generates more than $30 million a year. Eighty percent goes to teacher salaries, boosting them by more than $3,000 and keeping them competitive with other districts. The rest goes to art, music, technology and reading programs.
No date for the referendum has been set, but new superintendent John Stewart has moved quickly to scrutinize spending. Some of his recommendations could affect pay supplements and benefits, yet nobody's protesting too loudly.
Now's not a good time to complain about belt tightening.
WHO WILL RUN LARGO GOLF COURSE?
The city-owned course has long been a money pit, and in 2012 it might become someone else's job to try to make it profitable.
The course hasn't turned a profit since 1999. In recent years city management has had to dip into the general fund to keep it solvent — $200,000 in tax money went to the course in 2011, and $150,000 is budgeted for 2012.
Largo might not need to spend all that $150,000, though, because a private operator might be running the 18-hole, par-62 course before the year is out. The city has put out a request for proposals for people interested in leasing and managing the course. In April commissioners are to learn the quality of the bids received and get an update on the golf course's 2012 financial performance.
There only seem to be two potential hurdles to getting the course under different management: If Largo doesn't get high-quality bids, or if the golf course pulls a 180 and suddenly becomes wildly profitable. City staffers should address both of those "ifs" in April.
AFTER A TUMULTUOUS YEAR, WILL VOTERS DECIDE TO CHANGE THE COUNTY COMMISSION?
The commission failed to live up to its reputation for consensus on votes on major issues in 2011, such as funding emergency medical services and fluoridating the county drinking water. Members instituted parks fees that angered some members of the public. The newest commissioner, Norm Roche, stirred the pot by personally ordering a yard cleaned up and making anonymous online statements about other members.
This year's election could amp up the drama on the seven-member board even more.
Four members are up for re-election: south county district member Ken Welch, a Democrat from St. Petersburg; midcounty district member Karen Seel, a Republican from Clearwater; and Republican at-large members Nancy Bostock of Treasure Island and Neil Brickfield of Safety Harbor.
The chances for change hinge on improved relationships of commissioners — and voters' memories of 2011.
CAN WE EXPECT ANYTHING TO HAPPEN ON THE TAMPA BAY RAYS ISSUE?
That depends on how you define "anything." It's no secret owner Stu Sternberg wants to find a new home for the club other than Tropicana Field, where the Rays are contractually obligated to play until 2027. And while Sternberg wants to consider downtown Tampa or elsewhere in Hillsborough County, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said he won't let the team out of the contract unless the new stadium is in Pinellas County.
Those positions haven't changed since 2010, when Foster took office. But in 2011, Foster was challenged on the issue by the City Council, which has the power to overrule him. The council pushed Foster to reveal his long-term strategy for keeping the Rays in the city. When pressed during an August meeting, Foster refused to say what it was. Later, at a contentious October meeting, Foster and the council seemed to have resolved their differences without Foster revealing his plan.
While it's likely the council will continue to push Foster for a greater role, and that he will resist, these are stylistic points. Like the mayor, most council members object to the Rays' leaving St. Petersburg.
In tough economic times, it'll be hard for the Rays to campaign for a new publicly financed stadium. Still, club officials will closely watch how the Florida Marlins draw in their new stadium in Miami. If there is a public campaign for a new stadium, expect it to come from Major League Baseball.
Foster promises he will work more closely in marketing the team, but as far as reaching a significant accord on the stadium, it might be more realistic to wait until 2013.
HOW WILL PINELLAS COUNTY CONFRONT HOMELESSNESS?
The opening of Pinellas Safe Harbor near the county jail provided more than 400 beds for shelter and food. That helped St. Petersburg officials reduce the homeless population in Williams Park and other places.
But neighbors of Safe Harbor complained of increased nuisances. And homeless populations in north county areas remained. The economy has offered few breaks, upping the number of homeless families who aren't served by Safe Harbor.
The city and county have run Safe Harbor mainly with grants that won't last forever, too.
Its future could depend on finding consistent funding, and solutions beyond Safe Harbor.
HAS THE CONTROVERSY OVER PINELLAS' EMERGENCY MEDICAL SERVICES ENDED NOW THAT THE COUNTY HAS RENEWED THE CONTRACT WITH PARAMEDICS PLUS?
One of the most contentious and emotion-packed issues during 2011 was the future of EMS. The battle began a couple of years ago when County Administrator Bob LaSala predicted the system would be bankrupt by 2013 if something was not done about escalating costs.
LaSala blamed the bulk of the problem on salaries, pensions and perks for the firefighter/paramedics who are employed by the 18 cities and fire districts that provide first-response service for medical emergencies.
He proposed paying all districts the same amount for each firefighter/paramedic. Some districts would have to come up with more money if their employees made more; others would have a profit if their employees made less. LaSala also proposed cutting the number of firefighter/paramedics and eliminating some vehicles.
City, district and fire officials argued that LaSala's plan would shift a countywide tax burden onto local shoulders and would reduce the level of service.
Three firefighters submitted alternate plans to the county. They outlined a system of using firefighters, rather than the private, for-profit company, to take patients to hospitals.
One plan would allow firefighters to transport only emergency cases. The other, by Palm Harbor's Scott Sanford and Lealman's Jim Millican, had firefighters providing both emergency and nonemergency transport. County officials said neither plan would work and would be costly.
Sanford and Millican waged a hard campaign and, by the time commissioners voted to renew the Paramedics Plus contract, they were also interested in finding out if fire transport could work.
Late last year, a committee set up by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, met to find an accountant to get a handle on the real costs so legislators could have some idea of the effect of any changes they might make to state law concerning the way Pinellas' EMS system is set up. The legislative delegation could make a change this year that would be effective in 2014 when the Paramedics Plus contract ends.
WHAT WILL THE NEW ST. PETERSBURG PIER LOOK LIKE?
This month, a panel of jurors will select one of three concepts as a starting point for designing the city's new waterfront icon.
They'll rank designs labeled the Lens, the Wave and the Eye and leave the real decision up to the City Council.
The debate is likely to escalate, and some of the loudest voices in the public discussion are decrying what they view as avant-garde ideas from outsiders — firms based in New York, Los Angeles and Denmark.
Aside from the look of the new Pier, the debate will continue about what is actually possible given the structure's $50 million budget. Many of the tantalizing features, like a bridge to the Vinoy, a mangrove preserve and a water park can't be brought in for that price.
And will any of the proposed concepts reduce or eliminate the Pier's close to $2 million annual subsidies? Will the coveted stream of locals and out-of-towners flock to the Wave's proposed water-themed activities, including a bubble room and Turkish baths? Or the Eye's 2-acre beach? What about the marina/dock, cafe, kayak and paddleboat rental space, bait shop and fishing areas that the Lens says it will offer?
WILL FORT DE SOTO PARK REMAIN A STAR ATTRACTION?
For years, the park near Tierra Verde has been one of America's top beaches, and a magnet for 2.8 million visitors a year.
It also was free. But after years of debate, the County Commission imposed a $5 entrance fee that starts Tuesday . The money is supposed to ease cuts that crimped maintenance and cleaning of the local jewel.
County officials justified the fee, which also affected Sand Key and Fred Howard parks, because other beach parks charge for parking. Annual passes for $75 were created, with discounts for seniors and poor people.
But the new fee will test whether Fort De Soto can attract the massive tides of visitors when it carries a price tag.
WHAT'S HOLDING UP THE REDEVELOPMENT OF SEMINOLE MALL?
Seminole Mall, at Park Boulevard and 113th Street, has been a major fixture in the city since it was built in 1964. Long used as a place for meetings — official and social — it gained a reputation as the city's downtown. But it has fallen on hard times in recent years as stores departed one by one. The biggest loss came in 2009 when Publix moved across the street into a former Albertsons.
Seminole Mall Acquisitions bought the 39.3 acres in March 2002 for $20.7 million. Four years later, a company called Downtown Seminole LLC paid $35.7 million for the 425,292-square-foot mall.
Speculation began. Would buyers create a mixed use of residences and businesses, turn the property completely residential, or do something else? None of that came about. The economy tanked and last year a holding company foreclosed on the property. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
A bad economy, banks that aren't handing out loans for redevelopment, uncertain ownership and long-term leases that restrict rebuilding are the "biggest impediments to redevelopment of the mall," says Mark Ely, head of development for the city.
Times staff writers Drew Harwell, Lorri Helfand, Will Hobson, David Decamp, Sheila Estrada, Anne Lindberg, Ron Matus, Waveney Ann Moore and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.