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Clearwater Chamber forms task force to advocate for Imagine Clearwater project

Aerial of Coachman Park in Clearwater. In response to the work ahead, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce has created a taskforce to provide feedback, conduct their own research and be a voice for the business community during the development of the waterfront project aimed at revitalizing downtown. It is the first independent citizen effort that’s emerged to formally advocate for Imagine Clearwater alongside the local government. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times (2017)]
Aerial of Coachman Park in Clearwater. In response to the work ahead, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce has created a taskforce to provide feedback, conduct their own research and be a voice for the business community during the development of the waterfront project aimed at revitalizing downtown. It is the first independent citizen effort that’s emerged to formally advocate for Imagine Clearwater alongside the local government. [LUIS SANTANA | Times (2017)]
Published Mar. 5, 2019

CLEARWATER — Consultants are expected to finish calculating this month how much a covered concert pavilion on the downtown waterfront could cost taxpayers. But the answer to that question is only one of several lingering unknowns in the city's roughly $50 million waterfront redevelopment plan.

While Imagine Clearwater is still in the design phase, city officials have not yet estimated how much it could cost to operate the 66 acre waterfront with gardens, walkways, a gateway plaza and a concert green once the project is up and running. And beyond the $13.5 million allocated so far, city officials have not yet figured out how to pay for the rest of construction costs.

In response to the work ahead, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce has created a task force to provide feedback, conduct their own research and be a voice for the business community during the development of the waterfront project aimed at revitalizing downtown. It is the first independent citizen effort that's emerged to formally advocate for Imagine Clearwater alongside the local government.

"I would say we would insert ourselves into certain discussions where we feel we can provide value and step away when we don't, whether that's membership expertise or independent research the Chamber and its members would do," said Matt Crum, a member of the Chamber's board of directors. "I think our role will change and evolve as the project does as well."

Consultants who wrote Imagine Clearwater's conceptual plan in February 2017 advised forming a conservancy to "ensure that the design envisioned in this plan is implemented and the community excitement for this waterfront is sustained." Conservancies are private, nonprofit groups that raise money for park lands and spend it under agreed terms with the local government, according to the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit park advocacy.

Katie Cole, the Chamber's immediate past chair, said the Chamber's task force is not acting as a conservancy but could help define what a partnership between the government and the private sector could look like.

"Our goal is to be a resource for the city to provide a common voice," Cole said. "Is this group going to be that conservancy? I don't think so, but it can certainly put the right people in the room to talk about what's going to be successful for the city."

Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said many options are on the table, but more progress on the project's final design must be achieved before it can be determined whether an official private-public partnership or a more informal citizens group would work.

"I think it's always good if you get a group of individuals that want to form something like this and have the passion for it," Maxwell said by phone Monday while attending the Public Private Partnership Conference & Expo in Dallas. "At the end of the day, we have to define that relationship. We have to have a conversation with the group and find out what that looks like."

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While the Chamber has not taken an official position on the debate over the concert pavilion, Cole said the facility with 3,000 covered seats consultants are currently studying is a more appropriate direction than the modest, uncovered band shell that was included in preliminary design plans.

"We have always said it needs to be something that can drive attendance and participation and people and experiences in the park and be financially feasible," Cole said. "There is an opportunity for the band shell amphitheater to generate dollars, and I think as a group of business people, we recognize what's going to be the biggest hurdle for the city is how to fund the construction, how to maintain the park and how to make it successful and not a drain on the taxpayers."

Cole and Crum said the task force is growing but that it is so far composed of the Chamber's dozen executive board members, which includes board Chair Mike Sutton and Chamber President Carol Hague. Beyond the concert pavilion, the task force is also advocating for a financial feasibility plan for the park at large and movement on a funding plan for construction.

"As the city considers the impact and the direction they want to go to with the park, not just the band shell, they need to consider the financial side of things as well as the economic impact for the greater downtown area," Crum said. "That should drive the decision-making for what they do with the park."

City Manager Bill Horne said he understands the urgency for financial planning but that a final design must be completed before accurate costs can even be determined.

The final design of the 66 acre waterfront was stalled in October when the City Council directed staff and consultants to redesign the concert pavilion on a 4 acre green. Early design plans completed in June called for an uncovered band shell like what exists today in Coachman Park, a concept consultants created based on a year of feedback from the community in 2016.

But after Ruth Eckerd Hall in August and September pushed for a boutique outdoor amphitheater to attract world class performances and fill a void in the Tampa Bay Market, the Council directed staff back to the drawing board.

NAACP Clearwater/Upper Pinellas Branch President Zebbie Atkinson said he plans to accept the Chamber taskforce's invitation to meet but that his organization is still trying to define its role going forward as it relates to the project.

"I'm still trying to figure out how any of this helps the Greenwood community," Atkinson said, referencing the North Greenwood neighborhood just northeast of downtown. "Greenwood is one of the poorest areas in the county and I look at the Imagine Clearwater design and the gateway entry plan and there are things that go around Greenwood."

Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition President Karen Cunningham said she doesn't see an official advisory-type group sprouting from the neighborhoods coalition but that residents are actively watching the progress of Imagine Clearwater. At a Coalition meeting Monday, the group voted not to take a stand on the concert pavilion issue since there is no concrete design yet to evaluate.

She said if residents are going to continue to provide feedback on the project at large, elected officials will have to deal with trust issues they may encounter. Hundreds of residents gave input during seven town hall meetings in 2016 to help create the final conceptual plan and "I didn't hear anybody say 'wow, this will be a place for giant world class concerts,'" Cunningham said.

"I think the community has to not just sit back and decide that it's going to be taken care of but to really take a role in communicating with the council members about what they want," Cunningham said.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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