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Is Harborview Center worth investment?

The trend is clear: Clearwater's Harborview Center is not going to be the "cash cow" that former City Commissioner Fred Thomas promised in 1994 when he successfully persuaded his commission colleagues to invest millions of dollars in transforming a dilapidated former department store into a city convention center overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

Instead, the Harborview Center has become what critics of the original plan predicted: a drain on the city budget and a failure at attracting conventioneers.

The news isn't all bad. The Harborview Center has enjoyed some success as a center for community programs and a venue for small trade shows. But has it been worth the price?

The price has been huge. Retrofitting the old Maas Brothers department store cost almost $12-million. In addition, the city has been forced to subsidize the center's operations each year. The city's contributions to keep the center afloat have been substantial in the last three years. In January 2001, the city kicked in $2.2-million. In 2002, more than $175,000. In 2003, almost $500,000. And those contributions still were not enough to cover all the bills.

In the past year, the city has kept closer tabs on the performance of the company it hired to manage the Harborview, Global Spectrum. But the financial performance of the center continues to disappoint, complaints have surfaced about the center's food and marketing, trade show space is often unused, and parking remains an issue. The city budgeted a subsidy of $150,000 for this year, but the center's managers already are asking for more money.

Some city officials now wonder if it is time to throw in the towel. In addition, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce's Harborview Center Task Force, created in November to study ways to bring in more conventions, has reached the conclusion that the city will have to invest even more in Harborview if it wants it to succeed as a convention center. But first, the task force has suggested the city step back and review whether there should be changes in the way the center is currently managed. One option, the task force suggests, is for the city to take over the management.

Does Clearwater really want to take that on?

It is not unusual for city convention centers to struggle and require infusions of tax dollars. Even those built from the ground up as state-of-the-art convention centers with attached hotels _ features Harborview lacks, to its detriment _ don't have it easy.

The questions that Clearwater city commissioners must answer as they consider Harborview's future are financial ones. What financial benefits have accrued to the Clearwater community in the last 10 years from having Harborview? Can Clearwater afford to subsidize the center to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to keep it operating? Does the city have the extra money to also make major investments in marketing the center more widely, maintaining it in top condition and perhaps even remodeling it, and building more parking facilities?

And there is also this important question: Do city officials believe that having a heavily subsidized and perhaps only marginally successful convention center at the top of the downtown bluff is the best use of that land?

Once Clearwater commissioners have gotten those answers, they will not need a crystal ball to determine what should be Harborview's future.