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Frank Hibbard steps down after seven years as Clearwater mayor

CLEARWATER — Born into entrepreneurial roots — his great-great-grandfather founded True Value Hardware — a young Frank Van Schaack Hibbard III felt the pressure of high family hopes.

Growing up in Chicago, he was the youngest of six siblings by eight years. When he was 10, his father, a retired businessman, would leave Wall Street Journal clippings on his bed.

Now, 34 years later, standing in his windowed mahogany office seven stories above downtown, it's hard to say he didn't exceed expectations.

The senior vice president of a brokerage firm, an awarded regional leader and the outgoing mayor of one of Tampa Bay's biggest cities, Hibbard has become known as a shrewd and well-spoken leader who hasn't missed a city meeting in nearly 10 years.

On Monday, when Hibbard leaves the mayor's post due to term limits, he'll be replaced by George Cretekos, who won the seat last month. Hibbard is Clearwater's second longest-serving politician, with seven years as mayor.

A "weak mayor" by city charter, with limited authority, he was only one vote of five on the City Council. But with charisma and a sharp intellect, he was able to steer growth and shape agendas.

An imposing 6-foot-4, with a booming voice and forceful handshake, he was outspoken and opinionated and rarely backed down from a fight. But he also commanded respect with his dry wit and knack for social and political networking on the part of a city that often had been overlooked by Tampa and St. Petersburg. For a city with an inferiority complex, Hibbard became its ego.

"His personality has force to it," Clearwater attorney Ed Armstrong said. "When you first meet him, you know you have to take this guy seriously"

• • •

In 2000, city leaders promoted a referendum that would have brought $300 million in redevelopment and new life to downtown.

South Florida developers had plans to expand Coachman Park and build a movie theater, boat slips, high-end apartments and a chic hotel. But opponents seized on the proposed waterfront lease — $1 a year for 99 years — and the plan was soundly rejected.

Hibbard was disappointed but not surprised, he said: "The bumper sticker was '99 years for a buck.' A kindergartner could have killed it." Thinking he could do better, in 2001 he began his first campaign for office.

Then an investment officer for Huntington Bank, he touted himself as a financial watchdog who could size up budgets. But Hibbard lost in a four-way race, beaten by current council member Bill Jonson.

Undeterred, Hibbard joined the city's Community Development Board and, in 2002, toppled commissioner Ed Hart after a rancorous campaign. Two years later, at age 36, his ascension was nearly complete: He was elected mayor unopposed and, in 2008, was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote.

Across two terms, Hibbard saw wildly disparate economic conditions. As the economy worsened and tax revenue fell, the city cut more than 200 jobs.

Hibbard disapproved of the Church of Scientology and thought its presence hampered the development of downtown. But under Hibbard, the city also finished several major projects and fostered big investment. It built the Aging Well Center for seniors, one of Hibbard's earliest priorities, and downtown's Clearwater Harbor Marina.

His "intestinal fortitude" helped promote BeachWalk, the city's $30 million gulf-front promenade. Clearwater Beach saw expansive development, including the only two resorts built on Pinellas beaches in years.

Not everything went so well. Hibbard has reconsidered the building of some recreation centers and the design of the contentious Cleveland Street streetscaping. He also wishes the city would have scaled back its neighborhood traffic-calming projects: "We don't need the Cadillac version when a Chevy would accomplish the same thing."

Hibbard was a regular on the local-bigwig circuit, appearing at galas and community gatherings. He served on influential boards for regional transit and a number of not-for-profits; last year, the Tampa Bay Partnership awarded him the Chair's Cup for Excellence in Regionalism, a personal point of pride.

"He could stand next to a (Rick) Baker or a (Bob) Buckhorn or (Pam) Iorio. He was engaging, he was outgoing," said Brian Aungst Sr., who preceded Hibbard as mayor. "You have to be somewhat aggressive in those types of roles, or your presence won't be felt."

A senior vice president at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, he watched the markets open at 9:30 a.m., spent many nights at City Hall and worked a sometimes chaotic schedule in between. An Apple fan, he was known to play with his iPad during meetings.

But some of Hibbard's more infamous moments happened when he was off work. After seeing a Hooters billboard that read, "Liquor in Clearwater, Poker in Vegas," on a Sunday drive home from church in 2006, Hibbard convinced one of the breastaurant's co-founders to cover up the double entendre.

And in 2005, he botched the first pitch at a Philadelphia Phillies spring training game, a mortifying moment in front of a laughing crowd. He redeemed himself later, though it bugged him for months.

"Everything Frank does he wants to do in CinemaScope and Technicolor," Mary Repper, who managed one of Hibbard's early campaigns, told the Times in 2005. "He's a control guy."

• • •

One Sunday in 1993, Hibbard overheard a woman and her daughter in the stairwell of Calvary Baptist Church commiserating about being new. "I'm Frank Hibbard," he told them. "Now you at least know someone."

Hibbard and that woman, Teresa, have now been married for 15 years; their children, Whitney, 25, and Spencer, 22, grew up in their home in the historic district of Harbor Oaks.

It's with them, Hibbard said, that he would like to spend his off-time, as he prepares for a life with fewer galas and workshops. He hasn't ruled out running for office again, though for now he'd like to take a break.

He is looking out the window of his seventh-floor office, toward an expansive downtown vista stretching to the beach and beyond, when he says something that fits his time well.

"What makes you different," he said, "makes you special."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

Frank Hibbard steps down after seven years as Clearwater mayor 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 2:53pm]
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