CLEARWATER —The idea of merging city and Pinellas County government offices into one building has been floated for a decade.
But now that replacement options are being sorted out for both aging municipal centers about a block apart in downtown Clearwater, elected officials are considering teaming up for a single all-service center.
"If we're both in a place where we're going to have to replace our buildings, doesn't it make sense if there's a way we can collaborate and do it together so we can have a one-stop-shop government center that accommodates everybody's needs?" County Commission Chairwoman Janet Long said. "To me that's good business practice."
City Manager Bill Horne and County Administrator Mark Woodard had a preliminary phone call last week on the topic, and their respective staffs are planning a meeting to discuss it further. Horne said a joint meeting between the City Council and County Commission will follow, and details about the location of a new center, how it would be paid for and when it could be built are all to be determined.
The urgency to vacate the 50-year-old City Hall at 112 S Osceola Ave. and redevelop the prime waterfront property for retail, restaurant or other uses was highlighted in the city's $55 million downtown revitalization plan unveiled this month. But merging with county offices could mean the city's command center, and the foot traffic it generates, moves out of downtown to accommodate residents coming for services from all over Pinellas County.
State law requires a county's governmental center be housed in the county seat, which is Clearwater. But County Commissioner Charlie Justice said the current administration building at 315 Court St., just a block from City Hall, is inconvenient for residents coming from south and east county.
"We do have to have our government functioning in the county seat, and that would have to be Clearwater proper, but that doesn't necessarily mean downtown Clearwater," Justice said. "It could be closer to U.S. 19, where it might be more accessible."
Mayor George Cretekos said downtown businesses, especially restaurants, depend on the foot traffic from city and county employees and visitors coming to the governmental offices. He said it's important to keep Clearwater as the county seat but also consider the impact any significant relocation could have on downtown.
"They have a certain faithful clientele based on city employees so it would be difficult on them," Cretekos said of downtown businesses. "We need to take that into consideration. I don't want to give the signal if we move the city and county and courthouse way out of downtown that we're abandoning downtown because we can't do that."
About $6 million is earmarked for a new City Hall in the council's Penny for Pinellas IV project list that will go before voters in November. Woodard said the county's Penny list is also expected to dedicate funds to a new municipal center when it is finalized.
Because the idea is still in the conceptual phase, Woodard said it is unclear if all city and county offices would be housed in this joint facility or if certain departments will remain in separate buildings, as they are now.
It is just one of the unknowns that elected officials must consider if this round of discussions about a joint facility is the first in a decade to make it past the idea stage.
"Before we would take this forward in the form of a formal recommendation to our board of county commissioners, we have to figure out if there is a workable, feasible, viable plan for some kind of joint use public service facility that would create dollar savings and efficiencies that could not be realized if we each went our separate ways," he said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.