CLEARWATER — The city will pay $68,000 for a "vision plan" of the East Gateway, the downtown neighborhood long linked with drugs, the homeless and seedy motels.
From this month through November, consultants will study ways to attract businesses. They'll survey neighbors for ideas and draw up a plan for the neighborhood's next two decades.
The City Council agrees that few areas need help like the East Gateway. For years, leaders have grappled with the rundown series of city blocks that welcome visitors to downtown. But how to do that, and how much to pay, remains a sticking point for the council, which debated the value of buying "vision." The study carries with it the risk of being unusable, leading Vice Mayor George Cretekos to tell city staffers that he's "troubled by the cost."
"My concern was we were going to have a study and put it on a shelf and not do anything with it," Cretekos said. "I could write a study that says, 'Clearwater would look nice if — .' That's why I got so frustrated."
The idea-only "study" has for some become a bad word. Council members say a $130,000 downtown study has gathered dust over the years with little to show for it. Council member John Doran has joked that the city should go study-free for a year, "to balance the budgets."
But city officials say this study will be just the next step for a neighborhood cleanup with a wide range and no end in sight.
In 2006, the city began a five-year plan to work on the area's safety, housing, economics and looks. Leaders planned a facade program to dress up storefronts; a police substation clamped down on crime.
In April the city scored a concrete victory by demolishing a rundown block around the Economy Inn at 1274 Cleveland St., a market for drugs and prostitutes and a symbol of the neighborhood's squalor. The city bought the land for $1.7 million last year, saying it would be ripe for redevelopment.
Once a center for social services, the recent closing of the neighborhood's Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project drew cheers from area homeowners. A dozen residents flocked to City Hall to protest WorkNet Pinellas' attempt to move into the neighborhood; the job-training office was rejected in February.
But what neighbors say is East Gateway's biggest obstacle, the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen, remains busy at the neighborhood's core. Council members suggested the soup kitchen might be open to a move. But if it stays, Doran said, "we can have plans this high and they won't make a whit of difference."
Maryce Garber, the president of the East Gateway Business and Neighbors Association, said she supported the study, adding the city should "do whatever they can to help us out." But the cost, she said, sounded high.
"They're not going to actually build us a new East Gateway. These are just thoughts and ideas," Garber said. "How much money does that take?"
Filling 175 acres on the eastern third of downtown, the East Gateway sits between Drew and Court streets and Highland and Missouri avenues. Before the building of the Clearwater Memorial Causeway, the neighborhood once held the roadway to the beach.
Its location gives it potential, mostly untapped. Mayor Frank Hibbard called it a "blank canvas." Among the neighborhood's more successful draws: the Saint Cecilia Interparochial Catholic School, the Nature's Food Patch market and a fledgling restaurant, Greektown Grille. The study could add to their ranks, the mayor said.
"When the economy completely turns around," Hibbard said, "you better be poised to take advantage of that."
In April, after receiving 18 bids for the study, the City Council chose Gensler, one of the country's largest architecture firms. The $68,000 will come from $1 million in unspent redevelopment money, outside the city's general fund.
"It's not going to be an immediate payback. It's not going to provide the magic wand that will solve the problems immediately," Cretekos said. "If this study brings more development, it will more than pay for itself."
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.