CLEARWATER — You can't fight City Hall. But you can move it to another location if you want.
In about seven months, Clearwater voters will decide whether to allow a large new Clearwater Marine Aquarium to be built on the city-owned site where City Hall stands now on Osceola Avenue overlooking Clearwater Harbor.
If voters say yes, the question becomes: What happens to City Hall?
Clearwater leaders have started grappling with that question, and they intend to have a clear answer for the public well before the Nov. 5 voter referendum.
A lot remains unknown, but a few things have become clear.
First, most members of the City Council are firmly opposed to moving City Hall's offices into the Clearwater Main Library, which has been suggested as a cheap option.
Second, council members appear to be leaning toward building a new City Hall on a mostly vacant city-owned block on Myrtle Avenue, just east of the Clearwater Police Department and just south of the city's Municipal Services Building. That would give the city a compact campus of public buildings downtown.
Third, they don't want citizens to get sticker shock over the cost — possibly $7.5 million, according to an initial city estimate.
Officials believe they could pay for the City Hall construction with Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue and a small surcharge on tickets at a new aquarium.
"We ought to be able to put up a building that is functional without it being a Taj Mahal," said Mayor George Cretekos. "Let's reassure the residents that our funding options aren't necessarily property tax revenues."
What is City Hall? In Clearwater, it's 55 city employees in a nearly 50-year-old building that was long ago outgrown.
That building has 18,600 square feet, including a 1,675-square-foot council chamber for public meetings. It has 127 parking spaces out front and another 62 spaces in the rear.
As a practical matter, the city is looking at what it would take to replace that.
Officials have taken an initial look at five sites. These include the downtown library; the vacant block on Myrtle Avenue; property that the aquarium owns just south of City Hall; the soon-to-be-replaced downtown Fire Department headquarters at Franklin Street and Garden Avenue; and the Tampa Bay Times Clearwater bureau at 710 Court St., which the city bought in 2011, intending to someday use the site as a transit hub.
At a council work session last week, Vice Mayor Paul Gibson argued in favor of the library as the most cost-effective solution. In this scenario, City Hall staffers would move onto the library's second floor, and library offices would be consolidated on the third floor.
"I have a hard time spending $7.5 million worth of taxpayers' money to house 55 people when we already have facilities that we can use that are existing and vacant," Gibson said. "That is the condition with the library right now. There's thousands and thousands of square feet that have been vacant for years."
However, other council members viewed that as unworkable.
"I don't see the library being that feasible," said council member Bill Jonson.
"A library is a library and a City Hall is a City Hall," Cretekos added. "There's too many activities going on at the library that conflict with what we are trying to do as a City Hall."
For a number of reasons, council members view the vacant block on Myrtle Avenue as the most practical spot for a new City Hall. Among other things, the Municipal Services Building's nearby 474-space garage could provide parking for evening City Council meetings.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is asking the city for a no-cost lease of the current City Hall property at 112 S Osceola Ave., overlooking Clearwater Harbor. If voters approve, aquarium officials hope to break ground on the new facility in 2015.
The timing could be tight; city officials estimate that a new City Hall could be finished in roughly 18 months.
Just a few years ago, the city had plans to build a new City Hall using the city's share of Penny for Pinellas sales taxes. Officials abandoned that idea to focus on other priorities, but now the plan is back.
Clearwater already has plans for 25 other Penny-funded projects through 2020, costing a total of $76 million. Officials could shift some of that money to build a City Hall. They will discuss this at a future meeting, possibly as soon as next week.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.