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Beach needs vision that sees 20/20 on what is available

Poor Clearwater. The city just can't win when it comes to Clearwater Beach.

After the barrier island missed out on the economic boom of the 1990s, the city commissioners seated in March 2001 were determined to do something to bring a revival to the beach.

They had every reason to believe their efforts would succeed. The healthy economy of the '90s seemed to be revving its engine for a run into the new century. Clearwater's beach was named among the top urban beaches in the country. People had money to spend on travel and fun. And developers and beach property owners finally seemed to agree that it was time to modernize the beach tourist areas.

City commissioners went about preparing the beach for redevelopment in the same ways other communities had found successful. First, they did a lot of talking and seeking input on what the future Clearwater Beach should look like. They adopted a detailed plan to guide redevelopment. They decided the city should improve several public areas and incentives would be offered to encourage the private sector to build new projects on the island.

It was a tried and true formula. Everything was ready. Clearwater Beach was on the radar screen again.

And then 9/11 happened. And the economy went bust. And developers who had not already secured their financing could see only the backs of their money men walking away. Not only did the developers' financing dry up, but Clearwater's tourist-based economy faltered.

Nothing was easy anymore. A planned Marriott resort overlooking the beach became instead a plan for a surface parking lot, and even that may not happen. Developers and investors who had been all atwitter about Clearwater Beach, well, they don't seem to be around much anymore. A grand beach walk that would be a boon for walkers and bicyclists _ and would have been at least partially financed by developers _ suddenly seemed beyond reach, especially since the city couldn't come up with a way to build a south beach parking garage to replace the beachfront parking lots where the walk would be built.

With things so tough in the resort area of the beach, commissioners decided to focus instead on improving the Mandalay retail district while they waited for the economy to improve. They would do a lovely streetscaping, they decided. Then they would build a parking garage behind the Pelican Walk shopping center so all the new customers in the retail district would have a place to park.

But the consultants brought in to work on the garage plan can't come up with a formula that makes the garage pay for itself. So now the garage for the retail area is in jeopardy.

And there is talk of war.

Clearwater commissioners are not inept. They are just unlucky. Previous city administrations wasted years of economic prosperity and let the beach fall into decline. These commissioners have tried to turn that around, but they keep getting slammed to the mat by situations beyond their control.

This calls for creative thinking.

Mayor Brian Aungst was doing some of that at Monday's City Commission work session. The entire commission was discouraged by news that the Pelican Walk garage project had money problems because not enough retail customers were projected to fill it.

Aungst suggested that the city erect a variable message board sign on the causeway east of the roundabout to direct visitors to turn right for beach parking _ toward the Pelican Walk garage. Though that is not a traditional area for beachgoers to park because it is a block from the sand, Aungst thinks the city could use signage to move some beachgoers there, boosting usage of the garage.

That's the spirit it will take to keep the Clearwater Beach revitalization effort alive during these hard times, albeit by baby steps rather than long strides. This is a time for brainstorming. It is also a time for teamwork among city officials, beach property owners and those beach developers who have projects under way and have the capacity to help.

Now, if the city would create an obvious, dedicated walkway from the Pelican Walk property to the sand, shaded by tropical plantings and with food vendor carts stationed along the way . . .

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