Two Clearwater activists envision hotel, arts hub at Harborview site

This rendering of the proposed Clearwater Cultural Center shows a hotel and arts spaces.

Special to the Times

This rendering of the proposed Clearwater Cultural Center shows a hotel and arts spaces.

CLEARWATER — For a pair of self-described "soccer moms," it's an ambitious plan to say the least.

A couple of Clearwater activists are pushing their vision for an art museum, a children's activity center, a hotel and a parking garage to be built on the publicly owned site of the Harborview Center, which the city government intends to bulldoze. Their basic idea is that proceeds from the hotel would subsidize the museum.

This plan is in its early stages. It's a long way from becoming a reality because it would require financial backing, City Council support and Clearwater voters' approval in a referendum.

But the two women championing the idea, Michelle Rowland and Erin Woodward, have been meeting with dozens of community groups to drum up support. They've started a small nonprofit group called the Clearwater Renaissance Foundation and are mapping out a step-by-step process to try to get their goal accomplished.

They've even gotten a cautious thumbs-up from Save the Bayfront, a citizens' group that fought fiercely against previous proposals to develop this site.

"There's a thousand different ways this can be financed," Rowland said. "What I tell a lot of community groups is, 'You own this property. Decide what you want on it. Let's see if we can agree on a concept.' "

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Clearwater's city government will close the Harborview Center by next January because it can no longer afford to spend $350,000 a year to subsidize it. The 65,000-square-foot building has never worked well as a convention center because of its odd configuration.

"The Harborview needs to go away, and we need to be able to start with a clean slate," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.

It's in a prime location on a bluff by Coachman Park. But developers have expressed little interest in the site, and at some point the city might tear the building down to expand the nearby park.

Rowland and Woodward have a different idea, and it's big. It goes like this:

The city and the foundation would partner with a hotelier to put a hotel on the site. Profits from the hotel would sustain an adjoining museum and a children's center that would offer art, music and cultural programs.

The hotel would sit on top of a multilevel parking garage built into the bluff. The Harborview's current parking lot would be replaced by green space.

The big question: Is all of this feasible? Is it realistic? Or is it a pipe dream?

The reaction

"It's a very ambitious plan they have in mind," said City Manager Bill Horne. "You have to give them credit for their enthusiasm. I think they have the proper focus, in testing out the community's reception to their idea."

He added that any future plans for the Harborview site would need to have widespread community support before the city would hold a referendum.

Anne Garris, chairwoman of Save the Bayfront, likes how the plan expands Coachman Park.

"This may not be what everybody wants, but it never hurts to raise a flag up the flagpole and see who salutes," she said.

Rowland and Woodward haven't made a formal presentation to the council but have met with city leaders individually.

Officials want more details. They want to see financial projections.

"We have a lot of meetings like this," said council member Paul Gibson. "It's going to be a function of whether they're able to raise the capital to construct the project. It's going to take a lot of money."

What's next?

What's the Clearwater Renaissance Foundation doing now?

"Selling bricks," Rowland said.

They're trying to raise $25,000 for a feasibility study of the project. They're doing a brick paver fundraising campaign, seeking $100 donations in exchange for putting donors' names on commemorative bricks that would pave the approaches to the museum and children's center.

They intend to hire the same consultant that the Clearwater Area Chamber of Commerce will be bringing in to do a feasibility study of a separate project — a new convention center in downtown Clearwater.

If a study indicates that the hotel-and-museum project will work financially, Rowland expressed confidence that private investors will finance its construction.

Rowland and Woodward are community volunteers who started brainstorming this vision while waiting for their daughters to finish gymnastics class. They've heard questions about whether they can pull this off.

"I think some people wonder: If developers with oodles of money and connections couldn't make something happen here, how the heck are we going to do this?" Woodward said.

"We believe we're going to get this done because we're not developers. In no way, shape or form would we profit from this at all. If we have the right idea, we feel the public will embrace it."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

To learn more

For more about the Clearwater Renaissance Foundation, visit www.clrf.org.

Two Clearwater activists envision hotel, arts hub at Harborview site 02/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 3:23pm]

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