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Clearwater can, should revive its core

Along with all the big talk about what to do for downtown Clearwater, there is discussion of what some people might regard as minor changes. But those minor changes could have more immediate impact than any big construction plan.

Should apartments or a retail/entertainment complex be built on the East End of downtown? Should an art center or shops and restaurants be built on the bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor? Should City Hall be in the downtown district or somewhere else? Which would draw more people downtown, an art center or snazzy shops?

Interesting questions, but while people are working up a sweat over them, what might draw more folks downtown right away is . . . sidewalk cafes.

For much of the year the weather in Clearwater is beautiful for outdoor activities, including eating outdoors. But sidewalk cafes aren't allowed on Cleveland Street, downtown's main street.

At lunch time in downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Dunedin, people leave their offices or stop their shopping and gather around street vendors who sell hot dogs with all the trimmings. They eat and talk while standing on the sidewalks. That doesn't happen in downtown Clearwater. Street vendors aren't allowed there.

Clearwater has a downtown plan, all bound up in a plastic notebook with a nighttime photograph of downtown and the waterfront on the cover. Inside are plenty of recommendations for bringing the city's moribund downtown to life, including dropping the restrictions against sidewalk cafes and street vendors, making on-premise consumption of alcohol a permitted use, dropping the separation requirements between businesses selling alcohol, and encouraging more outdoor entertainment and festivals downtown.

The plan makes it clear that the downtown core should be the commercial entertainment district for the city, with an atmosphere that makes it attractive to pedestrians. That's a logical function. The downtown usually is the most densely developed area of a city, and it often is removed from neighborhoods that might be disrupted by the noise of pedestrians and outside entertainment.

But Clearwater's Cleveland Street area seldom has fulfilled that function. Downtowns have died not only because retail functions moved to the shopping malls in the suburbs, but also because downtowns lost their liveliness and did too little of substance to compete with the malls for residents' attention.

In recent months there has been a slow movement toward renewal for downtown Clearwater. Concerts have been held in the new Station Square Park on Cleveland Street. Brenda Nixon, a Clearwater resident with bright ideas, pushed acceptance of a program to fill empty retail stores downtown with artists' studios. With that program successfully begun, she is pushing ahead with plans for a coffeehouse and street festivals.

And the Clearwater City Commission has begun discussion of rescinding some restrictions that keep downtown too staid, too quiet to attract much attention. Commissioners have made no decisions, but will continue talks about making it easier for sidewalk cafes, pushcart vendors, nightclubs, restaurants, outdoor events and even bed-and-breakfast inns to locate in downtown Clearwater.

Business people in Clearwater have sought such changes for many years, but city officials often opposed them. They worried about litter, sidewalks being blocked by tables and vendors, liability if people fell or were pushed into the street, scantily dressed female vendors, and about other commercial areas of the city demanding the same relaxation of laws.

Most of those fears could be addressed with specific ordinance language that would limit the number of vendors per block, for example, or spell out that walking areas would have to be maintained through sidewalk eating areas.

As to the issue of fairness, many of the provisions being discussed by commissioners would not even be relevant in less densely developed commercial districts that do not cater to pedestrian traffic.

Such fears should not prevent commissioners from trying to find a way to make the provisions work. A small spark of life is glowing downtown. It needs to be stoked.