Clearwater Vice Mayor George Cretekos spent his career close to politics, but he had never been on the political hot seat himself like he was at a recent Clearwater City Council meeting.
Cretekos, former longtime aide to Congressman C.W. Bill Young, won a City Council seat last year when no one filed to oppose him. The council has had to make some tough decisions since Cretekos came on board, primarily because of declining revenues. But Cretekos perhaps didn't really feel the heat until the April 17 City Council meeting.
On that night, more than 300 people packed three floors of City Hall to hear the council debate a proposed hotel density increase in the city. Most of those people live on Sand Key in high-rise condominiums that line the gulf. Many spoke passionately about how more hotel rooms would bring more commercialism, more tourists and ruin their view and their neighborhood. Though Sand Key has two major hotels, the Sheraton and the Marriott, residents argued that it is a residential community and should stay that way.
However, Pinellas officials had determined that increasing the number of units hotel developers could build was a way to bolster the area's ailing tourist industry. The industry was hit hard by the condo craze over the last couple of years. Many hotel units were converted to more profitable condos. Properties that were once envisioned as sites for new hotels were snatched up by condo developers. Last year Pinellas County approved a boost in hotel room density to encourage developers to build hotels instead. Cities like Clearwater, which wants more mid-price hotels, are deciding whether to adopt the county density plan.
That most of the opponents on April 17 were Sand Key residents presented a special challenge to Cretekos, because they are his neighbors. He has lived on Sand Key since 1976 — far longer than many of them.
Would Cretekos side with his neighbors, some of whom talked about tourists like they were unwelcome invaders, even criminals? Or would he support the density increase, which could bring new jobs and more business to the city?
In the end, he split the baby, though some Sand Key residents think not evenly enough. He made a motion to reduce the proposed increase in density by 10 percent. The council unanimously approved his motion.
To me, Cretekos' most noteworthy contribution to the debate was the blunt comments he made to his neighbors in the room, including this:
"We need to be honest with each other," he said. "We are a residential community, but those condominiums we call residential communities are, for the most part, vacant almost half the year. And most of those that are vacant are used for rental purposes."
He added that his condo has a two-week minimum rental rule, but many unit owners circumvent the rule! It seems like those owners prefer their own tourists to the ones the hotels bring in.
Cretekos' comments made it easier for other council members to agree that Sand Key is different from other neighborhoods in the city. Council member Carlen Petersen noted that not only are the "residential" condos on Sand Key often occupied by tourists, but the community also has two large hotels, restaurants, public beaches and a centerpiece county park, all legitimate draws for visitors.
"To sit there and tell me you are truly a residential neighborhood is not supported by the facts," she said.
With his compromise motion, Cretekos made a small concession to his neighbors' concerns. But his priority, and that of his council colleagues, was to unapologetically serve the entire city's need for jobs and economic vitality.
I'd say Cretekos passed his first big test.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is [email protected]