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Clearwater hears dos and don'ts for recharging downtown

Clearwater hired an expert to develop a retail recruitment and marketing strategy for its newly spruced up downtown. That consultant's draft report was delivered to the city last week, and it contained findings some might find surprising. Among them:

• The presence of the Church of Scientology is an asset, not a detriment, because it brings visitors and money to downtown.

• SteinMart, downtown's only department store, "doesn't do that much for your downtown."

• There is plenty of parking available downtown to support a thriving retail district.

• Rents downtown need to be increased, not lowered, to attract new businesses.

• The city should not recruit national chain stores into the downtown.

If all that seems counter-intuitive, Midge McCauley was convincing in explaining how it all made sense. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency is paying Economics Research Associates/Downtown Works of Washington, D.C., $145,000 plus expenses to develop a Cleveland Street retail strategy and recruitment plan, and train staff to carry out that plan. McCauley, the principal of Downtown Works, has been spending time in Clearwater this summer and will deliver her final report in September.

It is a herculean task to figure out how to attract people to a downtown that hasn't been a draw in many years and how to rebuild a retail base destroyed by suburban shopping malls long ago. Clearwater officials figured out this was not something they should do on their own.

The secret, McCauley emphasized, is finding the magic mix of retail uses that will encourage people to get in their cars and drive to downtown for things they can't get in the suburbs.

In Clearwater, McCauley has concluded, that means restaurants, and lots of them — restaurants "they won't find five minutes from their house." The city should not try to recruit national chain restaurants that already have the suburban territory staked out, but instead should seek locally operated restaurants or ones without a national brand, she said.

And she isn't talking pizza joints and sandwich shops, but full-service restaurants that serve lunch and dinner and have a wait staff to serve diners — places that people would drive 20 or 30 minutes to visit.

"People will drive 30 minutes for a good cluster of restaurants," McCauley said.

When people aren't eating, there should be some other things for them to do downtown. McCauley said a secondary focus for downtown should be shops that people won't find in other parts of town, such as gift shops, apparel stores, furniture stores and unique book and stationery stores.

McCauley also enthusiastically supports the idea of the city buying the historic Royalty Theatre on Cleveland Street so it can be turned into a venue for films, live theater and concerts, because it would be another attractor.

McCauley said the city has turned Cleveland Street into "a beautiful environment that is less about vehicles than pedestrians" and is "a real downtown." Her company has analyzed the demographics within a 30-minute drive of downtown and said there are plenty of residents, tourists and money to support at least a four-block retail district if the city is able to recruit the right mix of retailers.

However, she also mentioned a number of problems with Clearwater's downtown, including:

• Street-level offices that interrupt the retail flow. Offices should be on upper floors or on side streets, she said.

• The Harborview Center, which doesn't take advantage of either its waterfront location or its frontage on Cleveland Street. McCauley recommended just starting over on that property.

• Rents need to go up, because higher rents tell retailers there are sales to be made there and help with recruitment.

• The city's downtown design guidelines and sign code may need to be loosened up to allow each property to have creative, colorful facades, window displays and signs. "You're not a strip center," she said.

ERA/Downtown Works recommends that cities have a retail recruiter on staff to spend full time on the road, researching and visiting unique retailers. Even then, the task of creating and maintaining a successful downtown retail district is laborious and ongoing, McCauley acknowledged. Her company has worked with Austin, Texas, and after more than two years and 600 prospect contacts, the city was able to make seven deals.

"It will take patience and perseverance," she said.

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

Clearwater hears dos and don'ts for recharging downtown 08/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 7:34pm]

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