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Stein Mart offer must be weighed carefully

Clearwater's lack of a supportable long-range plan for the former Maas Brothers property downtown probably will flavor an expected debate tonight over whether the city should lease the property to Stein Mart.

Stein Mart, an off-price retail chain that looks like a regular department store, wants to lease the main floor of the old building. The store's overture is being cheered not only by struggling downtown retailers, but also by people who have missed having a department store downtown since Maas Brothers closed.

City commissioners, operating on the philosophy that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, may be tempted to just grab the Stein Mart offer and heave a sigh of relief.

After all, the Maas Brothers property, which the city bought after the store closed, has provided one of several examples of the City Commission's recent inability to reach firm decisions on major projects. The land has been considered for a variety of uses, including a park, art center, new City Hall, retail/entertainment development and a community center. Each fell by the wayside.

The latest plan, pushed by Commissioner Fred Thomas, had been to keep the old building and turn it into a convention center with a bar/video arcade on the top floor. But that plan has become controversial for a host of good reasons, and even Thomas hasn't objected to the Stein Mart proposal so far.

Today at its 6 p.m. meeting, the City Commission is scheduled to discuss a proposed agreement drawn up by Peter Gozza, executive director of the Community Redevelopment Agency. Stein Mart would lease the ground floor for $150,000 per year, plus 2.5 percent of any sales in excess of $4.5-million. But in exchange, the city would have to renovate the 33-year-old building. Estimates have gone as high as $2-million.

There are some potential advantages to such an arrangement. Not the least of those is that a building that has become an eyesore and an embarrassment on the waterfront would be fixed up and put to use. The lease arrangement would bring some income to the city, especially if the store is at least as successful as Maas Brothers. And its presence would bring more people downtown.

But there are some possible pitfalls, too. Is it appropriate for the city to pay a king's ransom to bring one retailer, even a major one, to a downtown that has not demonstrated good health in the retail market? It seems especially risky to spend that money when the amount of return is dependent on the store's success, and when the city may eventually want the old Maas building demolished to make way for something else.

An arrangement with Stein Mart would keep that corner of Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street in its current unattractive configuration: a monolithic building surrounded by parking lots.

And the presence of Stein Mart would put a crimp in any plans to clear the bluff and provide a clean canvas for a major downtown development on the scale of Orlando's Church Street Station. It is worth repeating that Clearwater still has not made a request for proposals from developers for a project to span that entire block overlooking Clearwater Harbor. Because Clearwater has no plan for the property, it has no idea how the presence of Stein Mart in an old and unattractive building would affect the future of the downtown waterfront or whether it would dampen a developer's interest.

Given the lack of a plan for the property, city commissioners must consider the Stein Mart offer carefully to avoid cutting off future options. Certainly any lease with the chain should be open-ended enough that Clearwater could pull out of it later without penalty.