CLEARWATER — As a deadline looms, a grand total of two boaters have put down deposits to dock their boats in the 126 slips that the city will build on its downtown waterfront.
That's right, two out of 126 boat slips are reserved. Two. So while the city has committed $12.8-million to build the project, the local boating community thus far has shown only enough interest to cough up a paltry $1,000.
That sobering fact prompted the City Council to debate Thursday night whether to proceed with the project, which voters narrowly approved in a 2007 referendum.
"I've got to tell you, I'm getting nervous," said council member Paul Gibson, who has believed all along that the city overestimated how many boaters will rent the slips. He suggested delaying or canceling the project. "Maybe we want to think about this a little bit longer."
But his fellow council members want to forge ahead with the boat slips in Clearwater Bay, part of the city's efforts to rejuvenate its struggling downtown. They think boaters are more likely to put down money once they see construction start this spring.
"I have been here for 25 years and never understood why we didn't have boat slips on the bayfront," said council member John Doran. "I don't think that there will ever be a better time to do it. ... I don't think it's going to get any cheaper."
The city has the money. That's not the issue. The problem is that before the referendum, city leaders promised the project near Coachman Park would be self-supporting and even profit-making within a few years. The final vote was 6,411 for it, 5,833 against.
So why the lack of interest? Aside from the poor economy, there appears to be confusion over the lottery system Clearwater is using to assign the spaces. Before the economy tanked, the city was under the impression there was too much pent-up demand for too few docks.
"I've had a bunch of people come up and approach me, and they're still confused by the process for the lottery," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "They say 'We want the slips' but they don't understand where we're at."
Last summer, after city staffers said more than 500 boaters expressed interest in renting the 126 slips, officials came up with the lottery system. Boaters must put down a $500 deposit by Jan. 31 to enter the lottery. They are to learn in March whether they'll be allowed to rent a slip.
Staffers have even envisioned a festive event in the Harborview Center, with winners being called up one at a time and pinning boat-shaped sticky notes on the slips they want to rent.
However, that plan doesn't appear to be working out.
"Two is a pretty small lottery," Gibson said. "We can knock that off in about 60 seconds."
Council member George Cretekos asked about pushing the Jan. 31 deadline back.
Instead, city finance director Margie Simmons said officials were considering allowing the boaters who have put down deposits by the end of the month to pick out their slips, then setting another deadline for a second lottery.
The boat slips will be range from 30 to 55 feet long, and rents will be $15.50 per foot per month.
Construction has been delayed as the city works to get environmental permits from county, state and federal governments, said Bill Morris, director of Clearwater's marine and aviation department. The work may begin in March or April and be finished by late September.
Most of the City Council felt canceling the boat slips would be a knee-jerk reaction to a faltering economy.
"I know things are bad right now, but they're going to get better," said Carlen Petersen. "We're in the middle of the project. To back out now would cost us far more money than I'm willing to lose."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.