In a split vote, the Clearwater City Commission decided last week to bid $1.9-million for a four-acre slice of the city's downtown waterfront where the Maas Brothers department store now stands. In doing so, commissioners opted for the city, not the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), to buy the land.
There is a big difference. If the CRA bought the property, as the city staff had recommended, anything could be done with the land. It could be sold back to the city. It also could be sold or leased to a private developer for commercial or residential use. It could be used in any way the CRA believed would benefit downtown.
But with the city as the purchaser, the people would be in charge. Under city law, a referendum would be required if city commissioners wanted to develop the waterfront. Only with voters' approval could a hotel or convention center or retail complex be built there.
The bid of $1.9-million is considerably less than the appraised value of $3-million and $3.5-million. If the bid is accepted, which isn't expected to happen, the city would have the money to pay for the purchase by tapping the 1-cent sales tax proceeds. But if the city has to pay much more for the land, bonds will have to be issued. Once again, the voters would be in charge. Bonds can't be issued for that amount unless the voters agree.
Clearwater residents should be comforted that their city commissioners are looking out for the best interests of all residents, not just those of downtown. City commissioners make up the CRA. If they had chosen to let the CRA buy the land, they would have made it easy to develop the property and kick-start downtown redevelopment efforts. They chose, instead, the more difficult but more public route.
Commissioner Lee Regulski, who pushed for city purchase of the land, clearly wants the property to be converted to parkland. It currently borders the main library and the city's showplace waterfront park, Coachman Park. He and other city officials envision a long swath of parkland along the waterfront sweeping from the northern edge of Coachman Park south to Pierce Street.
Regulski was joined by Commissioners Sue Berfield and Bill Nunamaker in voting for the city to make the $1.9-million bid. Mayor Rita Garvey and Commissioner Dick Fitzgerald supported the city staff's recommendation for CRA purchase.
City purchase of the land is not a guarantee that the land would remain undeveloped. But it leaves that decision to Clearwater voters. They might one day decide _ for instance, during a severe economic downtown or if the city is courted by a master developer _ that it would be in the city's best interest to allow development there.
But for now, those who want the city's waterfront left open and in public hands have reason to be encouraged and to dream . . . of a green hillside, winding brick walks and a small forest of trees overlooking Clearwater Harbor.