CLEARWATER — After hearing from Clearwater Beach residents and hoteliers, Clearwater's elected leaders are holding off on ordering a nearly $440,000 new play structure for Pier 60 Park.
The elaborate concrete play structure in the shape of a giant sand castle would take the place of a row of palm trees in a grassy area just west of the Clearwater Beach Roundabout. It would be near Pier 60's existing playground, which would remain in place.
City Council members were slated to approve the purchase at their meeting Thursday night, but they postponed the vote until their next public meeting on the evening of May 1.
It appears that only the city's Parks and Recreation Department was pushing for the new play structure in the heart of the beach's tourist district.
Beach residents complained that the project came as a surprise to them. The City Council had been told that the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce supported the purchase of the sand castle, but that turned out not to be the case.
"The beach chamber has not made a point of saying that they were in favor of this," the chamber's executive director, Darlene Kole, told the council. Some beach hotels and businesses like the idea of the playground, while others have concerns about its size and location. The Clearwater Beach Hilton just to the north of Pier 60 is especially concerned, she said.
Beach resident Anne Garris said she and other members of the Clearwater Beach Association had never heard of the playground before it appeared in local newspaper articles Wednesday.
"Had we been aware of it before now, you would have known it," she told the council. "We would have been in touch with you."
Council members asked where the idea for the sand castle playground came from.
Parks and Recreation director Kevin Dunbar answered, "Professional staff, in reviewing the various products out there and looking at the investment that the city's made out on the beach and wanting to continue that investment, felt that this would be a great candidate for a nice amenity to add to the overall upgrade to the Pier 60 Park area."
However, beach business owners weren't convinced. Council member Bill Jonson said beach hoteliers had expressed concerns to him.
"I really think this project falls much more into the category of a 'want' rather than a 'need' out on the beach," said Hoyt Hamilton, a former three-term City Council member whose family owns the Palm Pavilion restaurant and hotel. "It's not going to bring us one more tourist."
A surprised City Council decided to take a step back.
"I'm a little surprised that we don't have the buy-in I thought we had from the business community," said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson. "These are all the wrong signs. Everybody should be lined up saying, 'What a great idea.' But we can't find anybody saying that except ourselves. So I'm not prepared to support this tonight."
The council split 4-1 on a decision to postpone the vote on the playground, with council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito opposed.
Hock-DiPolito disagreed with the beach chamber about whether the chamber supported buying the structure. She repeatedly noted that the chamber had once posted an image of the sand castle on its Facebook page with a supportive message.
"I don't understand why we're going to back up," Hock-DiPolito said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.