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Downtown Clearwater put under international scrutiny

As Christine Davidson stood before yet another storefront in downtown Clearwater, she was struck by a sense of familiarity.

"You know," said Davidson, 21, of Gislaved, a small town in Sweden, "the colors look just like home. Only they are not as nice."

Her partner, Hadbaa Ammar, 19, from Cairo agreed. No one can really tell what many of the stores are in downtown, she said. The signs are too small.

"If they had a lot bigger signs all around, then maybe this place could be made to look more interesting," Ammar said. "The signs are so small, they are hard to read."

Ammar and Davidson were part of a group of 11 international students from Schiller International University in Dunedin who took part in a photographic survey of downtown shops in Clearwater. The students, part of the Principles of Marketing and Advertising course at the university, were doing the survey on behalf of the Downtown Development Board. Judi Hackett, a consultant to the DDB, said the information will become the base for an ongoing evaluation of downtown.

Using the photographs and rating information, Hackett said, the DDB plans every year to check on the progress of downtown shops. The Schiller students were a perfect chance to get a fresh perspective on the area, Hackett said.

"When you work down here, there are things you don't see anymore," Hackett said. "We want them to focus on what's good about downtown, what could help young people."

The university students, who hail from Brazil, Estonia, Canada, India, France, Costa Rica, Sweden and Egypt brought an international slant to the survey, Hackett said.

Armed with cameras and a rating list for each shop, the students fanned out over downtown looking at the shops and writing what they thought of them. They later met at Fiore's Italian Deli in downtown to talk about their impressions.

"It is nice, but you need to fix up some places," said Luis Pucci, 21, from Sao Paulo, Brazil. "You have room to put nice restaurants. You could put Hyde Park here. Make it a nice place."

The students suggested open air markets by the harbor front. Sports facilities, clubs and up-scale shops should all be incorporated into downtown to attract more young people.

"You could have a movie theater," said Ammar. "And then someplace for young people to go afterward."

Hackett said she was surprised by the answers the students gave because they echoed those of residents about downtown improvements. Many of their comments already have been incorporated into the city's downtown redevelopment plan, she told them.

The idea of using the Schiller students was that of Johannes Lind, a 26-year-old marketing student from Goteborg, Sweden. Lind said he was not too surprised that he and his peers found the same needs for downtown as the residents did. People all want the same thing: a good place to live, work and shop, he said.

"It is common for all of us," Lind said. "We all take for granted the same things. It is good for them to have this perspective."