CLEARWATER — Residents have told the city that they love their parks and want even more opportunity for stretching limbs and minds.
But Mayor George Cretekos has an antidote for those pleasure seekers: If you want more recreational options, then be prepared to pony up the dollars.
"It can't be free," he said. "What we're going to have to decide down the road: Is it more palatable for our citizens to pay a user fee or to pay a once-a-year property tax increase?"
At issue is a 63-page master plan update for the city's parks and recreation system. The city hadn't done a comprehensive survey since 2002, before a crippling recession and housing bust made moot much of the previous plan. It was time for a reboot, said Kevin Dunbar, director of parks and recreation.
"The change in economic conditions, the reduction of the department — none of that was anticipated, so we felt we needed to go out and look at those last 10 years," Dunbar said after briefing the City Council at its Monday work session.
Some of the findings appeared paradoxical. Though Clearwater has an older population, residents who participated in surveys strongly supported bigger, better-stocked playgrounds and fields for soccer, football and lacrosse. Dog parks and golf courses? Not so much.
But other findings reflected the city's age demographics. For example, some of the city's 49 tennis courts might possibly be adapted for pickleball, a fast-growing sport played on tennis courts using paddles and Wiffle Balls and favored by seniors.
A 25-member stakeholder advisory committee drawn from neighborhoods across the city, 110 residents who attended a series of late summer workshops, and 490 responses to a mail survey contributed to the report's findings.
The study's conclusions: Redeveloping Coachman Park on the downtown waterfront, building a recreation center in the Morningside Estates neighborhood, and resurfacing the Ream Wilson Trail are the top capital improvement priorities.
Being No. 2 on that list is just fine with Spencer Cook, president of the Morningside-Meadows Homeowners Association.
Cook said building a new center to replace one nearly 40 years old that was torn down by the city a few years ago was supported by residents across Clearwater. Those who attended a series of workshops late last summer rated Morningside as one of three parks most in need of improvements.
"All we're asking is for the city to put back what was here," Cook said.
The city has allocated $2.6 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue for the center.
Redeveloping Coachman Park has long been a high priority for city leaders, though Coachman Park improvements were part of two failed referendums in 2000 and 2004. Residents ranked the waterfront park, which also serves as a concert and festival venue, as one of the city's most frequented.
The city has earmarked $5 million in Penny for Pinellas funds for the Coachman Park makeover.
Crest Lake Park, which Cretekos has said he'd like to see transformed into a centerpiece park similar to Largo's Central Park, ranked seventh on the priority list.
After the City Council work session, Cretekos said residents will rally behind his idea when they understand that the park restrooms that were demolished last year will only be rebuilt if the park gets a major facelift. The city has allocated $1.5 million in future Penny for Pinellas funds toward that purpose.
Study respondents said that the city should maintain restrooms only in high-use facilities.
The council will use the parks department update as it crafts its budget later this year.
Council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito said that one strategy to make ends meet could be to enlist local businesses to help.
"People that may be frustrated that we're not creating these parks fast enough or keeping up with them, they could go to local stakeholders and businesses to come in and make the parks that much more viable," she said.
City Manager Bill Horne said that the community feedback suggested that a clear consensus on how to proceed wasn't in the cards. "This document clearly shows a mixed message that you'll get. Depending on who you ask and what part of town, those answers might really conflict with one another," he said.
The master plan update can be found on the city's website at myclearwater.com/gov/depts/parksrec/master_plan.asp.
Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.