Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Does Clearwater still need a downtown?

Scientologists line up for the Friday (11/15/13) opening night of the Church of Scientology's week of celebration surrounding the dedication of its new Flag Building (right) where church leader David Miscavige is expected to announce the release of new church auditing technology in a celebration at the 150,000-square-foot tent in downtown Clearwater. The dedication of the massive Flag Building, a seven-story, $145 million neo-Mediterreanean structure that occupies an entire downtown block, is planned for early Sunday afternoon, and is a private event the church says will draw 10,000 Scientologists and highlights more than a week of celebrations, including seminars, banquets and presentations, for the church which has requested street and sidewalk closures, police protection and other city services.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Scientologists line up for the Friday (11/15/13) opening night of the Church of Scientology's week of celebration surrounding the dedication of its new Flag Building (right) where church leader David Miscavige is expected to announce the release of new church auditing technology in a celebration at the 150,000-square-foot tent in downtown Clearwater. The dedication of the massive Flag Building, a seven-story, $145 million neo-Mediterreanean structure that occupies an entire downtown block, is planned for early Sunday afternoon, and is a private event the church says will draw 10,000 Scientologists and highlights more than a week of celebrations, including seminars, banquets and presentations, for the church which has requested street and sidewalk closures, police protection and other city services.

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."

Scientology city

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 brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

Does Clearwater still need a downtown? 07/05/14 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2014 10:33pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Jones: Bucs need success to get national respect

    Bucs

    Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones offers up his Two Cents on the world of sports.

    No respect

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter walks the field during the second day of mandatory minicamp at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, June 14, 2017. LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times
  2. Hopes fade after landslide destroys Chinese village (w/video)

    World

    Crews searching through the night in the rubble left by a landslide that buried a mountain village under tons of soil and rocks in southwestern China found 15 bodies, but more than 110 more people remained missing.

    Vehicles and people line a road leading to the site of a landslide in Xinmo village in Mao County on Saturday in southwestern China’s Sichuan Province. More than 100 people remained missing after the village was buried under tons of rocks and soil.
  3. Rookie Jake Faria dissatisfied with performance in Rays' loss to Orioles

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The rookie pitcher walked to his locker Saturday after tossing the fourth quality start in as many tries to begin his career. He held the potent Orioles bats to three runs and for six innings gave his team a chance to win.

    Orioles third baseman Manny Machado tags out the Rays’ Mallex Smith at third after a rundown in the first inning.
  4. Thousands converge in two St. Pete locations celebrating LGBT rights

    Human Interest

    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Rockhill didn't know what to expect Saturday, but by noon people were knocking on the door of his bar Right Around the Corner in Grand Central.

    (From left to right) Emma Chalut 18, gets a rainbow sticker on her cheek from her sister Ellie, 15 both of Jacksonville before the annual St. Pete Pride parade in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday. This year the route was changed from the Grand Central and Kenwood area to Bayshore Drive.
[EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]
  5. Retired Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald dies

    TALLAHASSEE — A former Florida Supreme Court justice, who wrote a decision that prevented lawyers from excluding jurors because of their race, has died.

    Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Parker Lee McDonald died Saturday, the court said in a statement. He was 93.