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Bayfront flier filled with inaccuracies

The most inaccurate portion of a "Save the Bayfront" flier that many Clearwater residents found in their mailboxes last week is one of its first sentences.

"Our City Commission has voted to "Give Away the Bayfront!' " it trumpets.

Not true.

If that offends you, file this flier wherever you file your junk mail. Then resolve to ask questions about any other fliers you receive from this "Save the Bayfront" group before accepting what is contained in them as gospel.

Fred Thomas, a Clearwater Beach resident and owner of the Pinch-A-Penny chain of pool and patio supply stores, is the man behind this piece of political advertising.

Thomas is upset because he asked Clearwater commissioners to put certain questions he designed on the Nov. 3 ballot and they refused. Thomas decided to ask the questions himself in the flier, along with recruiting people for what he calls the "Save the Bayfront Political Action Committee." You'll notice he asks in the flier for your name, address and even a contribution.

About 10 years ago, there was a group called Save the Clearwater Bayfront and Memorial Causeway Parks, and it did a very good thing: It pushed for a change in the city charter so that only voters can approve development of the city's waterfront.

Before that change was made, the City Commission could okay any type of development it wanted. Some residents rightly believed that Clearwater's beautiful waterfront is a community treasure and that the power to build on the waterfront should belong to the people, not to five members of the City Commission.

Since the charter change was approved in 1983, the commission has been required to take any proposal for development of public land along the bayfront _ the bayfront being defined as the waterfront from Drew to Chestnut streets plus Memorial Causeway _ to the voters in a referendum.

That's exactly what the City Commission is preparing to do. On the Nov. 3 ballot, voters will be asked if they want the city to sell a portion of the former Maas Brothers department store property on the waterfront to the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center. That plan was endorsed by the Maas Brothers Task Force, a group of citizens appointed by the City Commission to conduct public hearings, then decide what ought to be done with the Maas property.

If the voters say yes, the deal will go through. If the voters say no, it won't.

But Thomas wanted commissioners to ask several additional, non-binding questions on the same ballot. He wanted to ask voters to choose among some other options, including turning the Maas building into a new City Hall, tearing it down to make a park, leasing it out, and putting the bluff area up for sale to commercial developers. City commissioners didn't want to mix binding and non-binding questions and the art center and other options on the same ballot because it was likely to confuse voters. It was a wise decision.

The City Commission did not vote to "give away the bayfront," as Thomas charges. It instead is doing what voters back in 1983 demanded: Letting the residents decide "yes" or "no" on a proposal to develop a piece of the bayfront.

There are other interesting things about this flier. Among them:

Save the bayfront for what? The flier doesn't say. Thomas wants contributions, but hasn't said what he wants on the bayfront.

The flier says the Maas Brothers building cost the city $1.9-million. Not true. The city also got 3.8 acres of waterfront land.

The flier repeatedly mentions that the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center formerly was known as "The Belleair Art Center," as if it is some foreign investor trying to take over the waterfront. The flier neglects to mention that originally the center began in Clearwater and was known as the Clearwater Art Museum.

The flier suggests that the city is "giving away" the bayfront because it paid $1.9-million, but the art center has offered only $750,000 for the property. The numbers are right, but the flier is comparing apples and oranges. The city is proposing to sell only part of the Maas property _ about half _ to the art center, which is a non-profit organization. And under the proposed contract, the city would get the property back, with improvements, if the art center ever wanted to leave or went bankrupt.

And there is something else that is odd. Thomas suggests in the flier that the existing Maas Brothers building could be remodeled by the city into a new City Hall for less than $2-million. That's about $12 a square foot.

But a few months ago Thomas argued against the idea of the city buying the SunBank building downtown for a new City Hall, in part because he said converting it into a City Hall would cost as much as $45 a square foot. Doesn't this seem peculiar? The SunBank building is a much newer, Class A office building, already set up for offices on some floors and ready to be set up on others. The Maas building is 30 years old, must have a new roof, needs new heating and air-conditioning systems and contains asbestos that would have to be encapsulated or removed.

And here is the kicker: Thomas said the SunBank building is much bigger than the city needs and shouldn't be purchased. The Maas Brothers building has more square footage than SunBank!

The City Commission isn't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. We can't say the same for this "Save the Bayfront" flier. Clearwater residents should keep a careful eye on this group.