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What to do about the Harborview in Clearwater?

If Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard had a sledgehammer, he'd probably take it to the Harborview Center.

Likewise, if City Council member Paul Gibson had a stick of dynamite, he'd probably throw it inside the old downtown building, despite its fabulous view of the Memorial Causeway and harbor.

But any potential destruction, obviously, would be a little more calculated.

They'd like a developer to rebuild it. But no one has shown any interest. They'd also like the current tenants to move. But that's not happening either.

Assistant City Manager Rod Irwin said he is meeting with the building's two businesses, Stein Mart and the Pickles Plus Too Deli, to see how long they want to stay. The city will discuss whether to extend its lease until September 2010, and then — if the economy turns around — do something with the building.

The meetings should take place in August or September, and officials will know more then.

The deli, though, has a lease extension that could keep it in place for the next 12 years. Operators have told the city they want to stay.

Some council members are speculating whether the deli is jockeying to get the city to help it move elsewhere downtown or if it really wants to stay.

Hibbard says the deli's proposal is "gamesmanship." He also says its lease is "the worst I've ever seen in my life."

The city bought the former Maas Brothers department store in 1994, hoping to use it as a convention center, and signed the deli to the contract because the city commissioners at the time were desperate for tenants.

Steve Tarbox, the manager of Pickles Plus Too, said the restaurant has no underlying reasons for wanting to stay other than the owners like the location and the 107-spot parking lot on the property.

"One of the great things is, the parking and the conventions have brought tremendous business to us," he said. "Whether or not (the city and owners) can bring their ideas together, that remains to be seen. But whatever they decide to do, we'd definitely love to stay here."

Although Stein Mart and Pickles have done well, the 65,000-square-foot convention center has not because, city officials say, of its odd configuration.

At this point, money is tight and the convention center is a losing operation. In 2006, the city spent $342,000 to subsidize the center. It could spend almost $300,000 this year.

"The Harborview Center has been consuming capital almost since the day it was built, and if you look at the overall numbers, there's nothing that will turn this around," Gibson, the City Council member, said.

"I think everyone will agree the question is when, not if, it gets shut down, and the sooner we make the decision, the sooner we'll feel relief in the operating budget."

City leaders initially thought developers would be interested in the site, mostly because of its location, on a bluff at the corner of N Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street.

But Irwin said he has met with a number of developers and they don't appear interested because of the poor economy, the property's small size — about 3.18 acres — and city leaders' lack of a clear plan for the land.

City officials have kicked around a few ideas, including using the center for a midsize hotel and convention center or tearing it down to create an entrance for Coachman Park.

Most agree, though, they'd rather have no building than an empty one.

City attorney Pam Akin said the city could probably get out of its lease with the deli, but it would take a "substantial" amount of money and possible litigation.

The site also has been a touchy issue for many residents. Some say they'd like to turn it into green space. Others think the city should build a cultural center or museum on the property.

In April, during a public meeting where residents got to choose what services they'd like to eliminate, many stamped a bulls-eye on the Harborview Center. They said the center, which falls under the parks and recreation purview, just costs too much to keep up.

Kevin Dunbar, parks and recreation department director, disagreed. He says it has a niche market and if taken away, key events would disappear. He said the center recovers 90 percent of its expenses and is a venue for major community events like the Festival of Trees and the Taste of Clearwater.

Whatever plans the city eventually decides on, council members say they'd rather lease the land than sell it.

They also want to find a way to keep Stein Mart and Pickles downtown.

By the numbers

$342,000: Amount spent by the city in 2006 to subsidize the center.

$300,000: Amount the city suspects it might have to spend to subsidize the center this year.

3.18 acres: The size of the property, which the city says most developers think is too small.

What to do about the Harborview in Clearwater? 06/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:26am]

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