The announcement that Stein Mart will close its downtown Clearwater store by the end of September is a disappointment. Located in leased space in the city-owned Harborview Center overlooking Clearwater Harbor, the discount department store was convenient not just to Clearwater residents, but also to residents of Dunedin, Belleair, Largo and the beach communities, and it also attracted beach tourists who wanted to escape the sun.
The city of Clearwater plans to shut down the Harborview Center early next year, but Stein Mart customers had hoped the chain would choose another location in or near downtown. That hope evaporated last week when store officials announced they will simply close the store by the time its lease expires Sept. 30.
A combination of factors is to blame, a Stein Mart official told the St. Petersburg Times. The planned shuttering of the Harborview precipitated the decision to close the existing store, but the rerouting of beach traffic away from the core of downtown on the new Memorial Causeway Bridge, combined with the lack of pedestrian traffic on Cleveland Street, discouraged the chain from considering another downtown location.
"You need the dynamics of a bustling marketplace, and I don't see that happening down there," said Kirk Light, vice president of real estate for Stein Mart.
The economy is the real culprit. If the bubble had not burst, the Water's Edge condominium tower across the street from the Harborview Center might have been occupied by now, along with the nearby Station Square condominiums, providing a residential base for downtown. Clearwater Beach hotel projects might have advanced more quickly, with the promise of bringing more tourist business to downtown. In a better economy, the boat slips the city will build later this year at the foot of the Harborview Center's parking lot might already be fully reserved; instead, the marina likely will be only partially occupied for awhile. If all these things had happened, Stein Mart might have considered downtown a place with more immediate possibilities.
Some who regret Stein Mart's planned departure are criticizing the city for closing the Harborview, but that was a decision that made sense even before the economy hit the skids. Fashioned around the aged bones of the old Maas Brothers department store, the Harborview was supposed to be a convention center. But its design was not suitable for that purpose, there was no accompanying hotel, and the hulking structure was an ugly blot on the waterfront bluff. The city poured money into the facility — most recently, $350,000 annually — and faced major maintenance costs in the future. The expiration of the Stein Mart lease provided the perfect opportunity to close the Harborview and the City Council was right to seize it.
Only one tenant remains, Pickles Plus deli, which has 11 years remaining on its lease. Downtown Clearwater has been good for the deli, which does a booming lunch trade, but business may suffer when the deli is the only going concern in a dead building. The city hopefully can work out an alternative plan for the deli, then firmly close the door on the Harborview and look toward a better use of that premier downtown location.