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Clearwater must stick with waterfront vision

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The cat is out of the bag concerning negotiations that could allow a Palm Harbor computer software company to locate its corporate headquarters in downtown Clearwater on the high bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

Gilbert and Jean Hakim, brothers who operate Soft Computer Consultants, have been negotiating with Calvary Baptist Church to buy the church property on the bluff just south of Cleveland Street.

The brothers also have been talking behind the scenes with city officials about whether the Clearwater City Hall property, which lies between two pieces of Calvary Baptist property, could be wrapped into the deal.

Under that scenario, the Hakims would control about six acres of the bluff-top property _ virtually all of it south of Cleveland Street. They have suggested that not only would they locate their headquarters there, they might also build condominiums.

Some city officials who are privy to details of the preliminary discussions are excited about the Hakim proposal.

Should the public, now that it knows about the negotiations, be excited as well? Is there any reason to believe that the Hakim plan has any better chance of succeeding than several previous proposals by developers?

For more than 10 years, the Hakim brothers have demonstrated their ability to grow a niche business and thrive in a difficult economy. They moved SCC's headquarters from New York to Clearwater in the early 1990s when it had only about 50 employees. The company, which specializes in research and development of computer software for the health care industry, soon outgrew its space in a Clearwater bank building. The Hakims then purchased the dilapidated, nearly empty Park Avenue strip shopping center on U.S. 19 in Palm Harbor and invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in expensive renovations and landscaping. The company has thrived in that location, now employing about 500 computer programmers and clerical employees, and must move again to larger quarters.

City officials are excited that a company like SCC is showing an interest in locating downtown. And it is a good sign that an up-and-coming business would consider downtown a promising location.

But why on the waterfront?

For years developers have declared that the Calvary Baptist property and the city-owned Harborview Center across Cleveland Street may be the most valuable parcels on the Clearwater mainland. The city has regarded both properties as important to the future of the retail district and has envisioned for them uses ranging from hotels to art museums to spectacular waterfront restaurants with retail shops. Any of those uses would allow the public continued enjoyment of the bluff, even where it is privately owned.

But a corporate headquarters would seal off that property and confine its use to the corporate officers and employees of SCC. That use hardly seems to fit with Clearwater's vision for the downtown waterfront as a great public attractor.

A couple of city commissioners regarded the proposal with raised eyebrows this week.

"When I think of the bluff and what it can be, somebody's corporate headquarters is not what I'm envisioning," Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton said.

"A corporate headquarters that will be just used during the day seems a little bit inconsistent with the strategy to create a downtown destination," Commissioner Bill Jonson said.

Whether the Hakims and Calvary Baptist can reach agreement on price remains to be seen. And any proposal by the Hakims to take over the City Hall property would have to be approved by voters. There would be other hurdles to jump as well, including parking requirements and zoning issues.

The note of caution sounded by Hamilton and Jonson seems the right tone at this stage of the discussion. SCC may be an attractive company and the prospect of its 500 jobs sweet, but city officials' vision of the waterfront as a great place for people to live and play remains a good one. Perhaps persuasive city officials could take the Hakims on a tour of downtown's other convenient locations for business.