CLEARWATER — Is there any hope for sleepy downtown Clearwater? Is it worth saving? And in the year 2014, in these decentralized, disconnected times, does a city even need a downtown anymore?
These are questions that leaders and residents of Tampa Bay's third-largest city will have to grapple with in the near future.
When experts from the nonprofit Urban Land Institute recently made a slew of recommendations for reviving downtown Clearwater, their suggestion that the city and the Church of Scientology work together got all the attention.
Lost in the shuffle was the fact that their other suggestions for stimulating downtown could cost millions. They called for a free parking garage, interactive fountains in Coachman Park, another entertainment venue, a water taxi between downtown and Clearwater Beach, and more.
Downtown boosters hope to turn that wish list into an action plan. Others are leery of pouring more taxpayer money into the district, where empty storefronts persist on blocks that aren't near the recently revived Capitol Theatre.
"The city can't do it all," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. "It's time for the private sector to come forth."
The mayor notes that $30 million in public improvements to Clearwater Beach, such as the BeachWalk promenade, revitalized the beach's tourist district. But Clearwater hasn't gotten the same results downtown despite spending some $40 million on a slate of improvements, including a downtown marina, streetscaping on Cleveland Street, and renovating the Capitol Theatre.
The mayor is reluctant to spend more. He occasionally muses about moving Clearwater's city center to a more convenient location.
In contrast, longtime City Manager Bill Horne tends to sound a more optimistic note. In his view, the recession interrupted Clearwater's long-term plan to revitalize its downtown.
"I don't think all our investments have been for naught. The story is still unfolding," said Horne, who runs the city under the supervision of the mayor and four other City Council members. "It just takes time."
A complicating factor is the presence of the Church of Scientology, which owns significant chunks of downtown and brings some activity there in the form of believers who travel to Clearwater for religious services. But some locals stay away from the district largely because of Scientology's presence.
The organization is downtown's biggest taxpayer because it pays taxes on the hotels that it maintains. But about two-thirds of its property is tax-exempt. Also, land owned by the church is kept out of the hands of private enterprise.
An expanded Clearwater Marine Aquarium downtown, which could open in 2017, would lure tourists and help dilute Scientology's presence, along with the newly active Capitol Theatre.
But downtown Clearwater's commercial core has other challenges — its lack of free parking and its distance from the nearest highway. It's far from the city's geographic center and from U.S. 19, where much of Clearwater's commercial activity is located. Driving there from the city's northwestern suburbs takes 25 minutes.
Mike Riordon, owner of a bike shop downtown, believes the city should promote late-night nightlife there to make it more of a destination. "My friends from Countryside tell me that if they're going to drive all that way, they'll just go to the beach."
Is downtown needed?
Clearwater sprang up downtown in the late 19th century and grew out from there. The city's news release about the Urban Land Institute said, "Downtown Clearwater has served as the heart of the civic, business and recreational life for the community of Clearwater and Pinellas County since its inception."
For some Clearwater residents, that's no longer true.
"We've wasted too much money downtown," says longtime Clearwater Beach activist Anne Garris, a persistent critic of City Hall. "It seems like nothing matters to the authorities except downtown Clearwater."
She objects to Clearwater paying for downtown projects using "tax increment financing," which sets aside any additional tax money from increased property values in the district and plows it into redevelopment.
The Urban Land Institute took the opposite view, urging the city to be more aggressive in leveraging that downtown tax income by borrowing against it.
Downtown's boosters remain passionate about its potential. They're keen on promoting a little-noticed tech sector of two dozen companies like ZVRS, AutoLoop and ThreatTrack Securities that employ hundreds of workers in three office high-rises. They're heartened that the city just okayed the construction of 255 apartments at downtown's east end.
Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership, envisions tech professionals in those apartments walking to work. Downtown Clearwater could be an economic engine, he says, in the way that downtown St. Petersburg has become the most vibrant part of Pinellas County's biggest city.
Here he's talking the language of urban planners, who see younger workers seeking out urban living.
So, are downtowns still necessary?
Urban development guru Richard Florida notes that, from 2012 to 2013, city cores grew faster than the suburbs in 19 of the nation's 51 largest metropolitan areas. During the first decade of the 2000s, only five of those metro cores were growing faster than their suburbs.
The experts say downtowns are coming back.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.