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Vacant downtown does not need this protection

The Clearwater City Commission today will discuss a pressing issue affecting the very soul and future of downtown: Whether to ban skateboarding and place restrictions on people who use roller skates and in-line skates.

Unlike last week's column, I am not making this up.

Exactly where does this skateboarding crisis rank on the list of priorities for injecting new life into downtown? If the city bans these felonious skateboarders, does that mean those vacant storefronts will be snapped up by the Banana Republic and the Limited? If the skateboarders are gone, surely a festival marketplace will be built by the end of the week.

The idea is to encourage people to visit downtown, not drive them away with a bunch of silly laws. Clearwater has waited for years for the Pinellas Trail to come through downtown and bring bikers and skaters who have helped enliven Dunedin and other areas. Now, the trail's final link will be built in the next few months. Adopting laws banning skateboarders and restricting skaters is not exactly throwing out the welcome mat.

Banning skateboarders downtown will drive them to another area of the city. Pretty soon, commissioners would just have to prohibit skateboarding everywhere and build their own jail to house all of the terrible criminals.

Of course no one wants to be run over on the sidewalk by a reckless skateboarder. Of course skateboarders should show more respect for pedestrians. Of course police officers should rein in skateboarders who are careening along sidewalks or streets with no regard for anyone else. But do we really want police officers to spend their time writing misdemeanor citations for skateboarding and tracking down parents?

If city commissioners want to keep skateboarders and skaters out of the Harborview Center area and parking garages, fine. There is a legitimate public purpose to prevent damage and ensure safety. But that's it.

When downtown sidewalks are jammed with shoppers whose arms are filled with bags from trendy stores that have filled every vacant space, then we can talk about banning skateboarders.

And for the record: I have never owned a skateboard. Something about the fear of broken bones.

'Tis a greeter thing to do

Here's another welcome mat mess.

You drive down to Florida from Indiana, cross the Memorial Causeway and start looking for information about the area. For 18 years, you could stop at the Beach Welcome Center operated by the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce at the Memorial Civic Center.

Pretty soon, you may be on your own.

The Clearwater city staff is recommending to the city commissioners today that the staffed center be closed and replaced by racks of brochures and a computerized kiosk. That is not the best way to cater to tourists and make them feel welcome.

The Greater Clearwater Chamber has operated the welcome center for free and leased the space for a $1 a year. The lease expired in May, and the upstart Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce wanted a shot at operating the welcome center. So the city asked for proposals, and both chambers submitted their plans.

The Greater Clearwater Chamber says it no longer can afford to operate the center for free. It wants to be paid from $35,000 to $99,500 a year, depending on the services and hours of operation. Steve Fowler, chairman of the board of directors, said a review of 10 welcome centers around the state found that fees range from $78,000 to $180,000.

The Beach Chamber says it will run the welcome center for free _ if about 200 square feet are set aside for its own modest office. Fowler said he is opposed to the city giving the Beach Chamber free office space.

Why not give the Beach Chamber a shot?

The Greater Clearwater Chamber sounds ambivalent, at best, about running the welcome center. The Beach Chamber is eager to do it, and the price is right. The city should require it to submit the financial information it failed to provide, write a simple contract and let it run the center for a year.

So what if it does not have any experience? The city can monitor the welcome center's performance. Energetic volunteers familiar with the beach and area attractions are certainly preferable to an unattended rack of brochures.

John Doran, a director of the Beach Chamber, said beach businesses agree it is vital to have a welcome center. He said the Jolley Trolley, which has offices in the Civic Center, also has offered to take over the welcome center duties in the Trolley's existing space.

For years, many Clearwater Beach folks have felt slighted by City Hall and downtown business interests. Here is an inexpensive opportunity to extend an olive branch. Let the Beach Chamber run the welcome center.

It makes you want to pie

The biggest outrage in my house is not skateboarding or beach welcome centers. It is that the giant pumpkin in Richard Shetters' front yard in Safety Harbor was vandalized.

The pumpkin, which weighed more than 100 pounds, was something of a tourist attraction until some jerks put a big hole in it and Shetters was forced to bury it in his back yard.

"That was not very nice!" declared my 3-year-old.

"Why would somebody put a hole in a pumpkin?" demanded my 5-year-old.

Good question.

_ Tim Nickens can be reached at 445-4184 or at nickenssptimes.com by e-mail.

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