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Voters, property owners control downtown's fate

A recent Times story noted that another batch of retailers is closing up and moving out of downtown Clearwater. Some of them, such as Brown's Coins and Park Jewelers, have been downtown fixtures for many years.

The merchants interviewed for the story reported that a variety of factors forced them to give up on downtown: too little pedestrian traffic, a growing population of homeless people, parking problems and not enough promotion of the downtown business district.

But their most bitter comments seemed to target the city government and its efforts to jump-start a downtown renaissance.

Sarah Brown Caudell of Brown's Coins put a sign in her window stating, "I have seen "catalysts,' "redevelopment,' "revitalize,' "jump-starts,' pie in the sky tomorrows, plans and ideas for downtown. I can no longer wait for them to arrive."

Al Bitman of Park Jewelers put it more succinctly: "I'm tired of waiting for tomorrow."

It is ironic that another city effort to improve downtown may have been the final straw for these retailers. Late this year the city hopes to begin new landscape and street improvements on Cleveland Street. The road will be torn up for months. "They're not promoting business, they're chasing it away," Bitman said.

Some merchants also are upset that the city has been handing out so many parking tickets downtown. The city originally stepped up enforcement of the one-hour onstreet parking limit to assist downtown retailers, who complained that people were tying up precious storefront parking spaces for too long.

What would downtown merchants have the city do that it has not done already?

The city has improved sidewalks and landscaping downtown several times over the years. It promotes the downtown area in brochures, on its Web site and on the city cable television channel. The city has improved the signs downtown so motorists can more easily find city parking garages and parking lots. The city has sponsored many events that bring thousands of people downtown. City officials have continued to allow onstreet parking on Cleveland Street, when opening those lanes would have eased backups in beach-bound traffic.

And on two occasions, the city has asked voters to approve large-scale projects that officials believed would draw more people and businesses to downtown. The voters said no _ emphatically.

The city's hands have been tied not just by the voters' decisions, but also by the fact that most downtown property is not owned by the city, and therefore the city has little control over it. The city has tried to impact downtown's future positively by planning projects on the land it does own, but with mixed results. For example, it built parking garages and parking lots, but they are seldom full. The city owns waterfront Coachman Park and wanted to expand it and add some attractions such as a promenade and marina, but the voters said no. The city decorates and redecorates the public sidewalks and street medians, but officials know streetscaping projects alone won't fix downtown.

To their credit, city officials are trying not to be discouraged. They are working to improve and focus the city's strategies for recruiting and assisting developers and investors who could bring new construction to downtown. The new streetscaping is on the drawing boards. And the early groundwork for another referendum on waterfront improvements already is being laid. The city's new mayor, Frank Hibbard, wants to get more public input early this time, and do an even better job of educating the public about the proposed project before voting day.

However, the future of downtown really lies in the hands of two other groups: the voters, who under the city charter have the right to approve or disapprove changes along the downtown waterfront, and the private property owners who control downtown land. Only those two groups have the power and resources to bring real change to downtown.

Diane Steinle can be reached via e-mail at