Murals are latest attempt at change in Clearwater

The murals are the first visible step in an 18-month strategy to revitalize downtown
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
A pedestrian passes a mural project as it is sketched and painted onto the side of Clearwater's Garden Avenue Garage.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times A pedestrian passes a mural project as it is sketched and painted onto the side of Clearwater's Garden Avenue Garage.
Published November 28 2018

CLEARWATER— Their murals cover buildings in cultural hubs across the globe from Buenos Aires, New Delhi and Vienna to cities throughout their home country of Uruguay.

Now for their first piece of street art in the United States, Camilo Núñez and Florencia Durán have come to Clearwater as the city is trying to revitalize downtown with its own kind of vibrancy.

"Culture is really important for any city," said Durán, who is painting a mural with Núñez on the Garden Street parking garage representing diversity and unity. "Street art, it's like a museum but in a public space."

The city's mural initiative is the first tangible move in an aggressive 18-month strategy to not only revitalize downtown, but to bring an identity to the urban center that has struggled for decades to find a sense of place.

By March of 2020, Community Redevelopment Agency Director Amanda Thompson has pledged to bring 600 housing units, attract $100 million in private investment and land a half dozen restaurants and bars to the downtown core.

Mixed into that economic strategy is a focus on public art, which Thompson said can be a catalyst for change.

"It kind of gets to that all-ages-and-all-wages type of experience. It's something you can enjoy for free," Thompson said of the mural program, which has a budget of $100,000.. "It gives us a chance to tell different stories of downtown that we haven't been able to before."

To lure new restaurants and bars, the city recently revamped its failed anchor tenant incentive program, which is now offering property owners up to $250,000 for building improvements that accommodate businesses that are open on nights and weekends.

To boost consistent foot traffic for retail and restaurants, the plan calls for more residential projects around the downtown core. The city put two long-vacant CRA-owned properties out to bid in October, inviting developers to propose market rate apartments for the sites. But when the bidding window closed on a property on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue earlier this month, only one developer bit. That project was disqualified because it pitched affordable housing rather than a market rate complex.

Thompson said she doesn't view the lack of bidders as a signal of disinterest in downtown. State law requires CRA-owned properties be advertised for only 30 days, leaving a difficult time frame for marketing, she said. She said she is working on outreach to developers before putting it out to bid again and has confidence it will attract an investor, similar to the July purchase of the Nolen apartments and the ongoing redevelopment of the former Strand apartment tower on Cleveland Street.

"There are other apartment complexes going up in this vicinity, and that tells me there's interest," she said.

But part of growing a retail and residential base will depend on shifting the perception of the downtown as an unwelcoming space, Thompson said.

Murals alone cannot transform a downtown but public art has become an element of successful urban spaces, like St. Petersburg. In 2012, the Morean Arts Center commissioned two murals in downtown St. Petersburg for a street art show, which helped inspire the hundreds throughout the city today, said Wayne Atherholt, the city's director of cultural affairs.

The city just completed its third annual SHINE Mural Festival, which brings artists from around the world to paint while visitors visit the pieces and take in the downtown's attractions in between murals.

"The murals are just another step up that ladder to making this a creative and cool city that people want to live in," Atherholt said. "It goes really well with breweries, with sidewalk cafes."

In its call for mural artists, Thompson said one of the only rules was that the proposals not have nautical themes so that downtown keeps a distinct identity from Clearwater Beach. The city received 144 applications for its five participating buildings.

The first, on the side of The Flag Company's building at 1360 Cleveland St. in the east gateway to downtown, was completed this month by the Gibbs High School Mural Club. It features an interpretation of the Florida state flag with a Native American woman tossing flowers into the water as a sun sets behind her.

"Some people just stop by and ask about it," said Flag Company owner Ron Willis, who has been running the business manufacturing flags since 1994.

Murals on the Creative Contractors building at 620 Drew St. and on a vacant space at 512 Cleveland St. are expected to be completed by the end of December. Julia Morrisroe, an associate professor in painting and drawing at the University of Florida, expects to begin her mural covering several stories of the parking garage at Clearwater Tower on N Garden Avenue in December.

Morrisroe is also part of the 352walls project that launched in Gainesville in 2015 and has brought more than 30 murals to the city.

"It started with the same type of concern," she said. "How do we get people interested in downtown, how do we get them to engage in their local community and build a better future for downtown? Clearwater pursuing this makes perfect sense to me."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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