Almost 10 years ago, five Clearwater City Council members had a vision of a modernized, successful Clearwater Beach, and they were willing to take a bold step they felt would make that vision a reality.
The council members at that time — Mayor Frank Hibbard, Hoyt Hamilton, John Doran, Bill Jonson and Carlen Petersen — committed to building Beach Walk, a $30 million meandering public walkway and gathering place they believed would be a game changer on a beach that was looking dated and attracting fewer tourists.
Ten years later and post-devastating recession, those five can legitimately say, "Mission accomplished." But even they probably didn't envision the spectacular success that Clearwater Beach is experiencing right now.
The county's top tourism official, D.T. Minich, bubbled with enthusiasm when he gave a tourism update to the current council at a recent meeting, reporting Pinellas' best winter season for tourism ever. Summer is looking just as good, he said. And though Clearwater Beach already has a lot of hotel and condo projects in the pipeline, he predicts it will need more.
"We're real excited about the new hotel development on Clearwater Beach," he said, adding, "We need more inventory. We need updated inventory. We're constantly in need of that."
What has made the difference for Clearwater Beach?
"The Beach Walk was such a vision. That has changed the whole complexion of Clearwater Beach," Minich said. "The city leaders had the vision to push Beach Walk, and it has been extremely successful."
Remember how asphalt parking lots and hundreds of parked cars used to separate S Gulfview Boulevard from the beach's sugary white sand? The Beach Walk project, finally completed in 2008 after years of discussion and planning, replaced those lots with a wide, meandering pedestrian walkway right on the edge of the sand. It provides an unobstructed view of the gulf. It's a great public space where people can walk, jog, watch sunsets. It was beautifully designed. And it draws people like a magnet.
Developers and merchants couldn't resist its appeal. That section of S Gulfview is bustling now, and projects to build more hotels, more condos, more restaurants and stores, are spreading east, north and south from Beach Walk.
And most of the development is high-end. That is perhaps the most surprising part of the change on Clearwater Beach. A place that for decades drew mostly middle-income families and retirees who stayed in mom-and-pop motels and spent little on their frugal vacations has in the space of 10 years been so transformed that it now legitimately markets itself as a west coast resort for the well-to-do. The Hyatt and Sandpearl resort hotels set the bar.
Minich hopes that some of the hotel projects on the drawing board now will have significant meeting space so they can attract conventions. "That's a great piece of business for Clearwater Beach," he said, because conventioneers typically stay in their hotel except for organized excursions by bus and therefore wouldn't add much traffic to crowded beach streets.
One reason Minich predicts a need for more high-end accommodations on the beach is that his agency, Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, is beginning to market Pinellas to South American tourists. Those tourists, he said, generally want to stay in four-star and five-star hotels.
While the council that was composed of Hibbard, Hamilton, Doran, Jonson and Petersen can claim credit for finally pulling the trigger on Beach Walk, other elected officials began the conversation about it in the early 2000s, around the same time they approved a detailed and sometimes controversial beach redevelopment plan called Beach By Design. Those officials, along with creative city staff, had a vision of a new Clearwater Beach, and they created the tools that made it happen.