When a consulting group begins its report with an apology to those it is about to offend, what's coming is bound to be controversial. Brad Rogers of the Urban Land Institute didn't flinch last week when delivering his report about downtown Clearwater to officials and residents.
"It is entirely apparent that you are a very divided community . . . and that division hits all the hot buttons of our day — race, class, language, ethnicity, religion . . . Everyone is feeling frustrated, ignored, under-appreciated, stymied. This is the most important reason Clearwater has not reached its potential.
"Where do you start when no one trusts one another? You have to begin at the top. You must start with the city and the Church of Scientology," Rogers said, calling the city government and Scientology the biggest players downtown. "I am profoundly sensitive and sympathetic to the fact that there is a long history of hurt feelings . . . But those past conflicts are irrelevant to the task at hand . . . If these two entities cannot work together, no one will."
Rogers was one of seven members of the institute, a nonprofit education and research institute, who spent a week in Clearwater this month to provide objective advice about the downtown. The panelists interviewed more than 90 people, read downtown plans and took tours. They reached these conclusions, in addition to the one about divisions: Everyone wants Clearwater's moribund downtown to thrive; downtown has tremendous underutilized assets, including the Intracoastal Waterway and a high bluff; the city's leadership is fragmented, uninspiring and too risk-averse.
The city can choose prosperity, panelists said, but it will have to partner with Scientology on their shared interest in a revived downtown or investors will be scared off by the conflict.
But a week in a city riven by 40 years of experience with an insular and sometimes hostile organization could not give the ULI a realistic view of the enormity of that task. Even after the report, as city officials expressed a willingness to try, the church responded with a no comment.
But there are other major players in or near downtown that the city should partner with on recruiting businesses and raising downtown's profile, including county government, Morton Plant Hospital and Ruth Eckerd Hall. And while ULI's comments about Scientology got the headlines, the panelists had other observations and great ideas it would be a shame to overlook:
• Clearwater should better capitalize on its connection to the Intracoastal by attracting restaurants with water views, growing the boating culture in the Seminole boat ramp area, enhancing Coachman Park and tearing down the view-blocking Harborview Center.
• The city should hold more events, large and small, downtown for residents and tourists ready for a beach alternative. Downtown should be lively.
• In the faded East Gateway area, create a Latin festival square, or mercado, with leased stalls and food trucks.
• Boost activity at the waterfront Main Library by tearing down security fences and locating other activities there such as arts initiatives.
• Work hard to recruit a business incubator.
• Assign oversight of the downtown effort to an assistant city manager and a "brain trust" of stakeholders and residents. Elected officials should "risk greatness" by making bold decisions and being "aspirational" leaders, the panel said.
Clearwater has a fabulous beach that is an international attraction, and one bridge away a downtown that is barely hanging on. There are plenty of great ideas for changing that, but without a big burst of enthusiasm, creativity and effort by local leaders and downtown property owners, decline rather than revival may be all that's ahead.