SAFETY HARBOR — Imagine, in place of the modest sign now standing at the corner of McMullen-Booth Road and Main Street, you see a grand entranceway structure nearly 70 feet long bearing the words "SAFETY HARBOR."
Picture a similar 70-foot-long structure on the opposite corner across Main Street, completing a two-pronged beautification project that would fulfill a goal expressed by city officials for years: to give the city a better advertisement where Main Street intersects one of Pinellas County's busiest thoroughfares.
This could be a reality. And it could cost the city as little as $15,000 or as much as $45,000.
City commissioners Monday night advised city staffers to move forward on preliminary plans for the project, which include asking Pinellas County about the possibility of using the land on the northeast corner of the intersection.
Each entryway structure would include an 18-foot brick wall bearing the city's name and two 25-foot wrought-iron fences punctuated by brick pillars with lights.
The city already owns the land on the southeast corner. It was purchased last year for about $35,000. The intention, according to Mayor Andy Steingold, was to leave it mostly untouched.
"We were going to preserve the natural ambience of the entryway," he said.
Now, according to the proposal for the new entranceway, a portion of the land would be cleared of "objectionable growth" to make room for the bricks and iron.
The project is still in the early stages, with no final approval from the commission, no dollar amount dedicated to it and no time line, but the plan has already seen support from the majority of the commission.
Vice Mayor Joe Ayoub said the new entrance walls would be a one-time expense that he sees as an investment in the city because it would draw drivers to businesses downtown.
"We could greatly use the update," he said.
One commission member opposes the walls — Steingold.
"The thought of spending $30,000 to erect an entryway to the city is an expenditure that right now, in this time, in this economy … I think we can wait," he said.
According to estimates presented by city staffers, a wall only on the south corner could cost between $15,000 and $25,000.
Another wall on the north side roughly doubles the estimate. City Manager Matt Spoor said there is no way of knowing whether using the county's land could incur any additional costs.
Bill Baker, city engineer, said the maintenance costs would be minimal. "Being that this is going to be masonry and brick, there will be very little upkeep," he said.
The commission will not explore options for possible funding until the county has responded to the city's inquiry. Money for the project could come from different sources, including the general fund or the city's reserves. The project could be budgeted for the next fiscal year, starting in October.
"We're very creative sometimes," Spoor said.
Steingold said the structure might be too grandiose for a small city that he thinks of as content with its quaintness.
"Is this really the window dressing Safety Harbor needs?" he said.
He also cited a December decision by the commission to deny the city's firefighters longevity pay — a measure that would have cost about $25,000.
"How can we say, 'We're not going to satisfy you with additional pay, but we're going to erect a $30,000 wall?' " he said.
Much of the December discussion about firefighter longevity pay revolved around an effort to protect the city's reserves and be fair to all city employees, as extending the benefit to nonunion employees would have pushed the total to about $165,000.
John Little, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 2267, said he would not comment on a proposal that has no approved funding, but he did say he would be concerned if the city chose to pull from the general fund or reserves to pay for the walls, which seemed off-limits in December when the City Commission discussed longevity pay.
"I think that's sending a mixed signal," he said.
Steingold said he hopes to receive more input from citizens before any decision is made.