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Be friendly to businesses, expand focus outside tourism, Clearwater officials urged

CLEARWATER — A pair of Texas economic development consultants hired to find out why the city isn't attracting new jobs didn't try to gussy up the bad news.

Clearwater, they said, has too many elderly residents, too many low-income residents and too many rules.

Their "economic development strategic plan," presented Monday to the City Council, cited some big challenges for a city that hopes to attract new and better jobs for its residents.

A third of city households earn less than $25,000 a year. Businesses are scared away by traffic and tough city codes. The buildings are aging badly.

Residents older than 65 make up a fifth of the city population — much higher than the national average. And residents younger than 35 make up only about a third, while the average American city hovers closer to a half.

And the young talent in the city is being lured away.

Clearwater's waterfront and popularity among tourists are still strong points, consultants Jon Roberts and Alex Cook said. But those strengths, they said, are "no longer sufficient" to keep up the city's business appeal "in the face of vigorous competition."

Among their ideas to turn things around: city-funded incentives.

Their Austin-based firm, TIP Strategies, was hired by the city in October for $75,000.

The city's average household earnings sink much lower than national, state and local averages. For example, Clearwater's median household income of $40,000 is $10,000 less than the national rate.

That may be because of the city's focus on tourism, which provides mostly low-wage service jobs. Skilled and high-wage jobs remain sorely needed, they said.

And tourism is a fickle industry: The last decade's terrorist attacks, recession and oil spill hurt local tourist attractions.

"Tourism is cyclical," Vice Mayor George Cretekos agreed. "We can't count on tourism."

Instead, the consultants said the city should focus more on industries like health care, finance, software and technology. Officials could recruit employers into tailored districts, encourage investment with matching funds or boast local institutions like Morton Plant Hospital.

That growth would help combat what Roberts said was the city's "most startling" issue: its dependence on residential property taxes. Homes make up two-thirds of the tax base, leaving the city budget reliant on the ups and downs of residential property values.

But spreading out that tax base among office and industrial taxes, they said, would take overcoming major business issues.

The city's permitting and development process is "too costly and protracted" and not seen as "business-friendly," they said. The city's office buildings and retail centers are old or outmoded, devoid of the modern infrastructure that companies like technology startups need to survive.

What Mayor Frank Hibbard called "Clearwater's weakness," though, was the distance from the western side of the city to U.S. 19. Gridlock on east-west roads like Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard scares employers away from downtown and the East Gateway area, the consultants said.

The city is home to 20,000 more jobs than it has working residents, meaning much commuter traffic is headed into the city.

The consultants suggested offering a sweetener to businesses that promise local jobs and investment. Fee reductions, fast-track permitting and tax exemptions, they said, could motivate employers to settle their workplaces in the city.

"You need to counter this 'just a beach community' impression," Roberts said. "This needs to be a place where businesses are welcome and can be successful."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Be friendly to businesses, expand focus outside tourism, Clearwater officials urged 08/02/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 7:15pm]
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