CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce has to move. It's right next to the Capitol Theatre, and next year the theater is going to expand into the building that the chamber is renting.
But the chamber doesn't want to move far. It wants to stay downtown. So it's just moving across the street, into an empty storefront at 410 Cleveland St.
One problem: That building has been vacant for years. Its interior has been gutted. The place needs new lighting, floors and ceilings. The landlord won't help with that, and will only give the chamber a break on rent.
So the chamber asked the city for help. On Tuesday, the Clearwater City Council agreed to award the chamber a $50,000 grant to help pay for the build-out of its new space — even though the mayor had some heartburn over it.
"I've got a problem approving this request," Mayor George Cretekos said. He worried that the city would be setting a precedent, effectively inviting other nonprofit organizations to move downtown and ask for the same kind of help.
In an effort to bring more life to its downtown, Clearwater occasionally helps pay to renovate the storefronts and interiors of downtown buildings that businesses are moving into. It has done so since 2008. It awards these grants through its Community Redevelopment Agency — up to $35,000 for retail shops and up to $50,000 for restaurants.
In 2010, for instance, the city awarded $50,000 grants to Tony's Pizzeria and Peter Gillham's Nutrition Center because both places were expanding and moving from the 500 block of Cleveland to the 400 block. Peter Gillham's later closed.
However, the Chamber of Commerce isn't a retail shop or restaurant. The city would have to make an exception for the chamber, and the mayor was reluctant to do so.
"I'm struggling with this," Cretekos said. He also worried that the chamber wasn't kicking in enough of its own money.
Bob Clifford, the chamber's president, said it was investing $35,000 to $50,000 to move into the new place. He said it was costing the chamber extra to stay on Cleveland Street.
"We can go to a lot of other places. This is by far the most expensive place we can go to do this," Clifford said. "It's the right thing for the city and for the chamber."
He pointed out that the chamber shares its space with Clearwater Jazz Holiday, the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, the Farmers Market and other downtown groups. He said the new office will have a large conference room for community meetings.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said he'd rather see the chamber stay downtown than move out to the Countryside area. "To me, the Chamber of Commerce belongs in our center of commerce, which we like to think of as downtown," he said.
Other council members noted that the chamber is relocating due to a city project. The Capitol Theatre, owned by the city and run by Ruth Eckerd Hall, is closing for major renovations next year.
The expanded theater will take over the two small buildings on either side of it — the chamber at 401 Cleveland St., and the Blue Dahlia Marketplace, a small clothing and interiors shop at 409 Cleveland.
Ruth Eckerd says it needs that space for additional seating, lobby space, concessions, restrooms and other modern amenities to make the small theater financially viable.
The Blue Dahlia also will move across the street. It will take up nearly 1,000 square feet in the building that the chamber is moving into. The chamber will use about 3,400 square feet.
Clifford said they hoped to have the Blue Dahlia open in the new spot by Nov. 1 and the chamber up and running there by Dec. 1.
At Cretekos' suggestion, the council agreed to make the $50,000 a matching grant, meaning that the chamber would have to spend $50,000 of its own money to get all $50,000 of the city grant.
It passed unanimously.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.