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Seeking solution to riddle of growth

What would it take to get you to come to downtown Clearwater _ as a shopper or as a business person looking for opportunities to expand?

If you're a shopper _ and many people are _ you might be inclined to say "nothing" because you're hooked on malls. But the right mix of stores, plus the restaurants that would follow to join those already in the downtown area, would lure people from as near as Clearwater Beach and Belleair and as far as Seminole and Tarpon Springs.

They would come just as surely as they now drive all the way to places like Hyde Park or the outlet mall in Ellenton because they find merchandise there that is not available in mall chain stores.

If you're a merchant like those located in Hyde Park or Ellenton, for example, what could Clearwater do to convince you that its downtown is your next-best choice for expansion?

That doubled-edged question was the topic of the hour _ actually nearly two hours _ Friday morning at the main Clearwater Library. Although promoted as a "shoppers' opportunity" to speak up, only seven of us showed up for what became an informal bull session on a topic that has been beaten to death, and yet still intrigues.

At the table were Judi Hackett, who is working as a consultant this summer for the Downtown Development Board trying to "come up with an action plan that everybody can buy into"; Library Director Arlita Hallam, who said her downtown staff's disposable income went up 10 percent when Maas Brothers next door closed; City Commissioner Sue Berfield, who has been pushing the idea of upscale catalog stores downtown; and David Grice, president of the Drew Park/Plaza Park Homeowners Association on the edge of downtown.

Also present were Bob Bickerstaffe, a longtime civic activist and enthusiastic supporter of Commissioner Fred Thomas, who believes that Thomas' idea of a convention/entertainment center in the Maas building and a rose trellis over Cleveland Street will finally jump-start downtown redevelopment; Elaine Feldhausen, who works in a downtown office building and said she would like to have more to do on her lunch hour than sit in the park; and me. I said I was there as an 18-year downtown booster who is disillusioned, burned out and in need of rejuvenation myself.

Judi, the consultant, said Clearwater doesn't need another one of those grandiose plans that goes nowhere, nor does it need talk about plunking something down in Clearwater just because it worked someplace else.

Clearwater needs to come up with its own action plan, and it needs to start small, she said. Others around the table agreed.

The challenge is to make downtown a destination, not just a place people pass through on their way to or from the beach. So, the question is, what would it take to make you get in your car and drive directly to downtown Clearwater, purposefully and frequently?

You can voice your opinions at one of Judi's future meetings or you can speak up in a letter to the editor that we'll publish and then pass on to her. She has meetings scheduled at 7 p.m. today at Junior League headquarters, 8 a.m. Tuesday at the Chamber of Commerce, 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Martin Luther King Center, 9 a.m. Saturday at the Pierce 100 condominiums and 7 p.m. June 28 at the City Hall Annex.

All of the meetings are public, but that last one is probably your best bet.

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