Almost 15 years ago, a Clearwater City Commission made a bad decision to turn a decrepit downtown department store building into a waterfront "convention center" — a decision that has caused the city years of financial pain.
It is time to end the pain, even though there will be a cost to pay first.
Members of the current Clearwater City Council have had several discussions this month about the future of the Harborview Center, as if it had one.
The squat concrete monstrosity, surrounded by equally ugly asphalt parking lots, has never been successful as a convention center. The building contains a popular SteinMart department store, but the store is entombed in the bowels of the convention center in a way that disguises rather than promotes it. A busy deli cafe, Pickles Plus Too, has a small space in the building but is often overcrowded.
The discussions about the Harborview Center were precipitated by the question of whether to extend the city's contract with Global Spectrum, which has managed the convention portion of the facility for the city since 2005. The existing contract expires on Sept. 30, 2009, and the City Council must decide whether to okay an extension until Dec. 31, 2010.
SteinMart's lease of its space in the Harborview Center expires, conveniently, in September 2009 as well.
September 2009 would seem to offer a great opportunity to close the Harborview Center and dispose of an expensive white elephant, except for one thing: Pickles Plus has a lease on its space that can be renewed for up to 12 more years. If the city decided to terminate the lease and close the building, Pickles could sue and the city likely would have to pay the deli owner substantial business losses and relocation expenses.
So pay the price and get it over with.
Here are just a few of the reasons why it makes sense to close the Harborview Center at the end of 2009 and demolish the building:
• Every year the city has to pay almost $300,000 to subsidize the operations of the Harborview, which has become a super-sized community center for private events such as wedding receptions and banquets and often-subsidized public events such as the Senior Funfest. It is not now and never will be a convention center, because the building is not configured for convention space and lacks a hotel.
• The building is about 50 years old, has been patched up and repaired repeatedly, still leaks and looks its age. The city estimates that repairs over the next five years just to keep the building open will cost almost half a million dollars, and that's if the roof doesn't have to be replaced.
• The expansive asphalt parking lots inhibit the city's ability to convert the pavement to grass and expand Coachman Park. If the Harborview Center were closed and torn down, the park could be expanded and the city and public could consider new uses for the building footprint at the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue.
• The city's long-expressed wish to lease the Harborview site to a developer for construction of a destination retail/entertainment complex isn't practical in this economy, even if the public would go along with the idea. City officials recently asked for an honest assessment of the site's development potential from four experienced firms and were told the site is too small at 3 acres to stand alone as a retail attractor, has poor access, would require offsite parking likely built on the city's dime, and there is too much uncertainty about the future of downtown now to take the risk.
• The future of SteinMart is uncertain after the end of its lease next year. Store officials had said they wanted to continue to operate somewhere downtown, but said the Harborview store space would need modernizing to stay there. City officials don't know how new leadership at the chain will assess the store's future downtown. If SteinMart leaves the Harborview Center, the city is legally obligated to pay Pickles Plus for business losses or bring in a comparable retailer under a new lease.
There are only losses ahead if the Harborview Center remains open. The City Council should vote to end its contract with Global Spectrum and its lease with SteinMart in September 2009. The city should not agree to any extension that would only perpetuate the situation to 2011.
Meanwhile, city officials should work hard with SteinMart and Pickles Plus Too to identify properties downtown where both could relocate, perhaps even sharing a building and parking. Hopefully, both businesses will want to continue a positive relationship with the community that has given them so much success.