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Battle lines forming in downtown debate

As a town hall meeting gives residents a chance to examine the redevelopment plan, the opposing camps are planning their strategies.

Proponents and critics of a sweeping downtown redevelopment plan are mustering their troops to prepare for a July 11 referendum on the plan.

At a town hall meeting attended by about 130 people Monday night, both sides shot questions at developer David Frisbie about the plan and its potential effect on the city. But the dueling campaigns go beyond a single public meeting.

The proposed downtown plan would bring a cinema, new housing units, shops and restaurants downtown. It also would require the city to lease some of its downtown land for up to 99 years to the developers at a base rent of $1 per year.

The enemy for redevelopment allies is voter apathy: Less than a third of the city's voters usually turn out for city elections, records show. And a recent poll showed that people who traditionally vote dislike the redevelopment proposals.

Supporters of the plan have identified blocs of potential voters, setting up a battleground for the coming weeks.

One bloc identified by supporters comprises residents of Countryside _ site of the city-sponsored meeting Monday. Before that meeting, a pro-redevelopment group gathered in the Countryside High School cafeteria and planned to go door-to-door to talk to registered voters in the coming weeks.

"The people we need to talk to are the people who don't vote regularly," said Jim Appelt, who is co-chairman of the committee leading the effort supporting the plan, Citizens for a Better Clearwater. "If you can get any one community to turn out en masse, it's an advantage."

City officials are considering sponsoring two more town meetings to take a pro-redevelopment message to other neighborhoods with high numbers of potential voters, perhaps in Morningside and Sand Key.

Another potential block of voters supporters are counting on is the Calvary Baptist Church membership. The church plans to move from its downtown home to an east Clearwater site _ a move that is contingent upon the city's project, which calls for the purchase and redevelopment of the downtown sanctuary.

"That could be 1,500 votes . . . that, I would think, could have a reason to vote for the downtown plan," Commissioner Ed Hooper said in a recent interview.

To muster support, Citizens for a Better Clearwater have printed yard signs and run a newspaper advertisement. A mailing is in the works. About $15,000 has been spent to pay for it all.

The primary opponent of the plan, a group called Save the Bayfront, so far has refused to discuss its strategies. The group has compiled a glossy flier for a possible mailing that argues the city should redevelop public areas downtown without yielding control of any land to a developer.

Until now, the group has presented a rough draft of an alternative plan that calls for public improvements to the area without private involvement. Members, including several former city commissioners, have appeared before the commission to criticize the redevelopment effort.

The city also is strategizing. City Attorney Pam Akin says staff members have debated just how far they can go to sway the public's vote _ and that a legal court case precedent does allow cities to advocate a position in a public referendum.

But City Manager Mike Roberto says that the city's public relations during the coming weeks will be more "educational" than political.

"We're not telling people how to vote," Roberto said Monday evening.

The city, however, has produced a large map labeled with all the elements of the plan to distribute. Officials are preparing at least one _ if not two _ mailings to residents to inform them about the plan. The expected cost to the city was unavailable Monday.

City workers have helped developer George de Guardiola put together a video describing the plan, which will be aired on the city's cable channel daily starting in about a week, said Jackii Molsick, the city's top public-relations administrator.

Additionally, Roberto met with the city's three employee unions last week, asking representatives of the city's firefighters, police officers and general employees to endorse the redevelopment plan.

Roberto says he has made no promises that the unions would get anything in return.

But union presidents say they have concerns to be addressed before giving their support, said Steve Sarnoff, president of the general employees union, and John Lee, who leads the firefighters' bargaining unit.

Among the unions' concerns: What will be the impact of the redevelopment package on the city budget? That directly affects city employee workloads, staffing levels, future raises and rising health care costs. The city has hired an economist to figure the budgetary impact.

"We need to make sure . . . that we will be able to provide services to this level of redevelopment," Lee said. He thinks firefighters already are working tremendous amounts of overtime due to staffing strains.

The Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce is another group getting into the action. The chamber endorsed the downtown plan last week.

This week, its board will discuss how to push the downtown referendum's passage, reaching out to business members and also financing public-relations efforts aimed at the general public, said chamber president Mike Meidel.