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Harborview slides deeper into red ink

Financial woes continue at the Harborview Center.

After accepting a $450,000 city bailout last February, the company that runs the beleaguered city-owned conference hall ran a $150,000 deficit last year. Under a contract with Global Spectrum, which also operates the Pinellas Expo Center, Clearwater must pick up that tab.

Now the management company is asking for an extra $85,000, chiefly for marketing and maintenance expenses at the downtown facility, on top of the annual $150,000 subsidy already budgeted by the city this year.

All of which has left city leaders fed up with the arrangement.

"Possibly it's time to sever the relationship," city Commissioner Frank Hibbard said Wednesday. "It has been a black hole."

Last year's bailout covered financial shortfalls blamed on shrinking revenues after Sept. 11. In January 2001, commissioners transferred $2.2-million from the city's insurance reserve fund to cover Harborview's debts. In 2002, the city kicked in $178,670, but the center still failed to break even, falling more than $85,000 short.

Next month, city commissioners will discuss a range of options regarding the Harborview Center, including renegotiating the deal, taking over the facility, closing it, or finding a new management company, according to Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar.

The facility's budget is $1,694,850 this year, said Isabelle Blainey, general manager at the Harborview Center. The extra money for this year would go for repairs and marketing to help boost revenues, she said.

"I didn't ask for anything that's not necessary," Blainey said. "Realistically, I could use more."

But the request comes on the heels of a recommendation from the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce that the city consider a change before investing more in the Harborview Center. In a letter sent last week to the city, chamber chairman Ray Ferrara suggested the city consider restructuring the contract to include performance incentives, finding a new management company or taking over the facility.

On Wednesday, interim city Commissioner J.B. Johnson said the city could save money by running the conference center itself.

"The Harborview has been a problem for the city of Clearwater since the day it opened," he said. "It hasn't proved successful. I believe the time has come to consider some changes."

Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton said the center's performance has been disappointing since it opened in 1996 and argued it might benefit from a new management company.

"The Harborview Center was sold to the voters of Clearwater as a cash cow," he said. "It needs to perform as such."

Commissioner Bill Jonson also is troubled by the shortfalls.

"My concern," he said, "stems from the financial assurances that I thought were in place that I thought were to keep that from happening in future."

Blainey, who took over in October, said the building, which city leaders say is small and lacks adequate parking, serves a need for community meeting space. Today, 350 people are expected to attend an annual Chamber of Commerce luncheon there.

Most convention centers are subsidized in some way, she said, adding that the building has the potential to make money.

"My goal is looking forward," she said. "There is only so much I can do about the past."

_ Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrellsptimes.com.

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