CLEARWATER—The city's vision for a "Sand Castle Playground" to draw tourists and continue the rebranding of Clearwater Beach appears to be dissolving in the face of opposition from Clearwater Beach residents and businesses.
"I can kick myself because I probably should have realized this when we approved it. We've been closing some playgrounds down and we're spending money on a playground," said Mayor George Cretekos, who said he's now leaning against the project.
The City Council will discuss the playground at Monday's work session. The plan calls for the $440,000 play structure to be built near Pier 60's existing playground, which would remain open. The concrete structure would resemble a giant sand castle in a grassy area just west of the Clearwater Beach Roundabout.
Last week, the Clearwater Beach Association heard a presentation from Parks and Recreation director Kevin Dunbar before its board voted unanimously to oppose the project, said Wendy Hutkin, the association's president.
"It's very expensive and not something that is needed. That area is already congested," Hutkin said.
Higher priorities for beach residents are extended hours for the Clearwater Beach Library and Recreation Center, including keeping the pool open throughout the year, she said.
Although the city had been studying the playground idea for some time, Hutkin said beach residents found out about it by chance at a council meeting.
Now that the city knows how they feel, she said, the project should be scrapped.
"I hope they would listen to the voice of the public," she said.
Dunbar was out of the office and unavailable for comment late last week.
In April, the council voted to postpone the vote on the playground after hearing resident and business concerns.
Last week, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the council taking a neutral stance while noting it wasn't possible to quantify the potential economic impact of the playground.
The regional chamber surveyed its members and found that while 62 percent of its general membership favored the playground, its beach-based membership didn't.
The Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce was more blunt, openly opposing the project.
"We are not of the belief that this playground will be the deciding factor in anyone's decision on where to vacation. This is a relatively small playground, not an amusement park," wrote Eric Waltz, the chamber's board chairman.
More parking, especially on the north end of the beach, is a more pressing need, he wrote.
Doreen Hock-DiPolito, the lone City Council member who voted against postponing the playground vote last month, said she still supports the idea. A signature landmark like the playground is a way to continue "branding" Clearwater Beach, recently named by USA Today as the state's best beach town.
"My position is that the Pier 60 plan done by Parks and Rec fits with the branding moving forward. That's really the reason why I feel so strongly about continuing that vision for the future growth of the area," Hock-DiPolito said.
Similar opposition was raised several years ago about the Clearwater Harbor Marina, she said, which she said has proven successful.
"Sometimes change is hard for people," Hock-DiPolito said. "It's not just about one park, not just about one location, it's about a strategic plan."
One possibility is that the council could split apart the park and other parts of the project: a flag plaza, estimated to cost $100,000, displaying the flags of the U.S. military to be located between Pier 60 and the Clearwater Beach Roundabout; and a new "Welcome to Clearwater Beach" sign.
Cretekos said the council might choose to defeat the current proposal in a vote and then amend it to just spend the money on the flag plaza and the sign, which he estimated would cost between $10,000 and $20,000.
Hock-DiPolito said she supports the plaza and sign.
"We need the sign sooner than later," she said.
Clearwater Beach residents accept that living in a tourist destination means they have to make compromises, Hutkin said, but tourist attractions shouldn't always trump local needs.
"There has to be a balance," Hutkin said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.