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While Dunedin dominates the craft brewery scene, Clearwater is left behind

From left: Soggy Bottom Brewing Company owners Cary Lamb, of Clearwater; Lucan Rizon, of Dunedin; and Andrew Buckenham, of Palm Harbor, install new flooring at their 2,400-square-foot brewery and tasting room at 662 Main St., Dunedin, on Dec. 12.
From left: Soggy Bottom Brewing Company owners Cary Lamb, of Clearwater; Lucan Rizon, of Dunedin; and Andrew Buckenham, of Palm Harbor, install new flooring at their 2,400-square-foot brewery and tasting room at 662 Main St., Dunedin, on Dec. 12.
Published Dec. 14, 2016

For more than a year, Jay Polglaze has been courting breweries from across the region, trying to convince one to be the pioneer in launching a craft brewery scene in Clearwater.

The recruiting started while he was on the City Council, where he helped change the city code and made it legal to brew beer downtown. He also led the city's exploration of buying the historic post office on Cleveland Street to convert it into space for a trendy pub or restaurant.

Despite these efforts, now continued in his position as Clearwater Downtown Partnership executive director, not one company has bit.

But while Clearwater struggles to get a piece of the growing craft brewery community, Dunedin, a city one-third its size with a downtown less than four miles away, is watching a cottage industry explode without the chase.

Two more craft breweries are under way in Dunedin and expected to open early next year, which will bring the total to seven, all within walking distance of the downtown core.

"We didn't go after craft breweries, but they liked the environment we created, which is a downtown that's walkable and friendly," said Bob Ironsmith, Dunedin's director of housing and economic development. "They're thriving on each other instead of being competitors. We've become a destination."

Polglaze said Clearwater is dealing with a "chicken or the egg" conundrum, where retail and restaurant owners are waiting for foot traffic to take off, but the residential development is difficult to lure without a vibrant central district.

With the 257-unit Nolen apartment complex under construction on Cleveland Street and a draft revitalization plan for the downtown waterfront unveiled this month, Polglaze said momentum is building.

"This has been a problem, but I have to keep the conversation alive," Polglaze said. "I've put Clearwater on everyone's radar that we have some of the cheapest real estate rates and motivated council members."

When asked if the Church of Scientology's presence — with its 300,000-square-foot Flag building and dozens of other properties among its international spiritual headquarters downtown — has an impact, Polglaze was optimistic.

"The Church of Scientology absolutely desires a very successful and integrated retail environment," he said. "They do want a restaurant environment. They need social destinations for their parishioners to go to."

When Andrew Buckenham was scouting out the perfect spot to open his Soggy Bottom Brewing Co., he considered Clearwater and taking advantage of its untapped market.

But he strolled along Cleveland Street at different times of day and watched where people were hanging out, how many were out and about, and he knew he couldn't take the risk.

"Each time we went, there was just a lack of foot traffic, a lack of people who would be coming into our business," said Buckenham, who is waiting on state licensing and hopes to open in Dunedin by February. "We didn't go further than that."

He and his two partners settled on the building at 662 Main St., the former Richard's Foodporium store, in part because the vibrancy and community was already there.

Michael Bryant, owner of Dunedin Brewery, which opened in 1995 and is the oldest brew pub in the city, said having a collaborative brewing community is fostering part of the momentum. The pubs don't see each other as competition, and Bryant has consulted with and assisted every bar owner in getting their businesses off the ground.

He said the goal is to make Dunedin "the brewing district of Florida," which could help its neighbor in its revitalization efforts as well.

"As we draw more people to the area, once they visit Dunedin, they'll say 'Okay, what's next,' " Bryant said. "Maybe that will help overcome whatever are the negative aspects of downtown Clearwater. Something is not working right down there, and I'm not sure what it is.

"There's something that's keeping people from taking a chance there, is the way I see it," he said.

Zachary Thorn, vice president of Government Affairs for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber is not conducting any recruitment of breweries specifically. But he said Clearwater could be seen as prime real estate for investors looking to take advantage of Dunedin's success and open an anchor brewery in Clearwater to link the two downtowns.

"People in St. Pete bar hop longer distances than that," he said.

With a growing community of craft breweries regionally — from Safety Harbor to Seminole Heights — why not Clearwater? Thorn asks.

"What we need down here is bodies," Thorn said. "Downtown Clearwater is open for business and we're welcoming with open arms. Brewery community: We'll do whatever it takes."

Staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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