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City hands downtown plan to voters

Clearwater commissioners approve holding a referendum in July as groups pro and con speak about the future of the city's waterfront.

The City Commission voted 4-to-1 late Thursday to put a sweeping downtown redevelopment plan valued at $200-million to $300-million to a public vote this summer.

The proposed downtown plan _ now to be decided in a July 11 referendum _ would create 1,200 new dwelling units, a multiplex cinema, more retail shops, more park space, new restaurants, a hotel with meeting space and at least three new downtown parking garages.

The package would require the city to lease some of its waterfront land to developers George de Guardiola and David Frisbie of West Palm Beach for $1 a year for up to 99 years.

About 130 people on both sides of the issue filled the commission chambers Thursday at City Hall during the three-hour hearing.

A group called Save the Bayfront, which has been critical of the proposed long-term leases and of commercial redevelopment of the city's downtown land, handed out glossy fliers detailing its position.

A rival political committee, Citizens for a Better Clearwater, waved grass-green signs urging people to vote yes for the downtown plan. They also handed out stickers with their logo, a rising yellow sun.

The two sides challenged each other at the lectern, providing a sneak preview of the coming debate that will play out in mailings and speeches leading up to the referendum this summer.

Former Commissioner Fred Thomas, a member of Save the Bayfront, encouraged city officials to promise that residents could trust them to follow through on creating the plan that has been presented for downtown _ and not radically change it after the referendum.

He didn't get a promise that satisfied him.

"You're asking the voters to vote a blank check to the developers, based on something that can be changed after the vote," Thomas said. "Nothing is binding on anybody here but the voters at the referendum that give away their land. . . . I like a lot of the pictures, but I don't trust blank checks."

The other perspective was portrayed by people like Paul Gibson, a downtown business owner who runs a hot dog shop and stares across the street daily at a mostly vacant downtown building. Sales can be as little as $300 some days, Gibson said, because there is so little life downtown.

"From what I've seen so far, there's very little risk to the city in this," Gibson said. "If we had done this 20 years ago, think of what downtown would look like today. Instead it looks like the South Bronx. . . . I urge you to take this opportunity because opportunities like this aren't going to come along every day."

Under the tentative terms of a deal with the developers, property taxes created from new development would help fund a host of public improvements, such as an expanded bayfront park and the beautification of Cleveland Street.

The developers would build many public projects, such as a new main library and city hall, and promise to maintain public areas of the city's bayfront. The developers would be reimbursed for those expenses by property taxes from downtown redevelopment.

The developers could also work with the city to sponsor the sale of bonds to finance projects _ but the developers would be responsible for guaranteeing the revenues to pay off the bonds.

All five city commissioners spoke at length Thursday.

Commissioner Ed Hart rattled off a list of questions that he wants to have answered for the public.

"This referendum is also about public trust," Hart said. "What we do now only begins the discussion. Much of what has been presented so far are only concepts. Much of the details remain to be determined."

Commissioner J.B. Johnson, who disagrees with many aspects of the downtown plan, voted against it. But he said he would put his feelings aside and try to work to make it happen if residents approve it in this summer's referendum.

In approving the plan, the commission decided to ask voters three questions in the July 11 referendum: whether to lease city land for the downtown plan; whether to approve a $15-million bond issue to build a new main library; and whether to swap some city land on the east side of town with land Calvary Baptist Church owns in the area.

Hart and Johnson questioned the swap, which would help the church move from its downtown sanctuary, leaving the land to be redeveloped.