CLEARWATER — Here's another example of how times have gotten tougher and government spending has gotten tighter.
Just a couple of years ago, Clearwater invested $10 million of tax money into a major upgrade of Cleveland Street through downtown. But on Monday, City Council members questioned whether Clearwater really needs to spend $42,000 on another consultant for its downtown revitalization strategy.
The comparatively small sum triggered a lot of questions. Clearwater staffers say the consultant's work is necessary, but council members needed to be convinced.
The end result: A Bethesda, Md., consulting firm called StreetSense likely will be hired to put together a city-approved design manual for storefronts and building facades in downtown's Cleveland Street District. The council will vote on the contract Thursday night.
The intent is to make things simpler for frustrated property owners who want to upgrade their buildings and bring in new commercial tenants. Officials say too many of these downtown landlords aren't sure what exactly the city wants, and what kinds of renovations will get the city's blessing.
"My main goal is that we clarify things for people and eliminate roadblocks, because I'm getting complaints that we're creating roadblocks," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. More clarity might ease property owners' frustrations, he said. "If this bridges that gap, then I'm for it."
He also noted that the consultant would be paid from taxes generated within downtown's "community redevelopment area," and not from citywide tax revenue.
Why is the consultant needed?
Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin said a downtown redevelopment plan in 2004 set up design guidelines for storefronts. Then in 2006 the city started offering grants to encourage downtown landlords to upgrade their buildings' facades. But those two programs are sometimes inconsistent, and ask building owners to do different things.
"We find that's creating some confusion," Irwin said. "We need to make it more user-friendly."
Vice Mayor George Cretekos wondered why city staffers aren't doing this job instead of a consultant: "Why can't we do that internally?"
Irwin responded that this consultant has the expertise needed to produce a storefront design manual: "It's a very specific art."
Council member John Doran had a blunter question: "Will it work?"
Like the mayor, Doran hears from property and business owners who complain that the city's codes and permitting process stop them from doing what they think is best for their businesses.
Jon Eisen, managing partner of StreetSense, said the key is to educate property owners about what the city is really looking for.
Last year, the city paid a different consultant $145,000 to develop a Cleveland Street retail recruitment plan. It's a tough task to attract people to a downtown that's been in decline for years, so Clearwater officials say they can't do it without outside help.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.