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How will the city pay for Imagine Clearwater? We might (almost) know tonight.

If a vote passes, the city will have solid funding for about 80 percent of the plan’s total cost.
A 2017 aerial photo of Coachman Park in Clearwater, the future site of Clearwater’s re-imagined waterfront.
A 2017 aerial photo of Coachman Park in Clearwater, the future site of Clearwater’s re-imagined waterfront. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Nov. 21, 2019|Updated Nov. 21, 2019

CLEARWATER ― The city is poised to take a major step forward on its Imagine Clearwater project.

It won’t be cheap.

At tonight’s 6 p.m. meeting, the City Council will vote on whether to authorize up to $30 million in bonds to help pay for the $64 million downtown waterfront redevelopment project. The money will go toward a $6 million renovation of the Clearwater Main Library; a $41 million makeover of Coachman Park; $3 million for the park’s conceptual designs and a $14 million transformation of the Coachman Park bandshell into a boutique covered amphitheater.

If the bonds are approved, the city will have solid funding for about 80 percent of the plan’s total cost. Officials have long planned for about $25.5 million in bond financing, with another $25 million or so in known funding coming from both city and Pinellas County taxes.

The bonds and the interest associated with them would be paid out of the city’s general fund over 30 years. Interest rates for the bonds sit at about 3.5 percent, noted Clearwater Finance Director Jay Ravins.

Notably, the bond payments would not come directly out of property tax revenue. They would come from other city general revenue sources, including franchise fees, utility taxes, etc.

Even so, the bond expenditure has aggravated a major grievance held by some in the city. The City Council’s decision earlier this year to include the 4,000-seat covered amphitheater as part of the Imagine Clearwater plans has long been controversial. Some residents argue the amphitheater plan fundamentally altered the city’s original goals for Imagine Clearwater, which was conceived in 2016 as a series of developments around an active waterfront green space.

Beginning early next month, Clearwater officials will take preliminary park design plans to a series of neighborhood meetings to get citizen feedback. If tonight’s vote passes, the city will have unlocked an eight-figure funding source for the park before making those presentations.

Related story: After six-month delay, City Council unites behind 4,000-seat covered concert venue for Imagine Clearwater

Carl Schrader, who will become the incoming president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition next year, cited the amphitheater when he argued the city should hold off on approving the bonds Thursday.

“We don’t have a clear, definitive answer for what this money is going to be used for. Is it going to be to make the park green, open and beautiful? Or is it going to go toward the amphitheater’s roof?” Schrader said.

The finances are also somewhat concerning to Schrader. Thirty million dollars in bonds gives planners some financial flexibility, but it’s a larger figure than the city previously cited.

Ravins noted the language of the item up for a vote is worded such that the council would be approving up to $30 million in bonds. The city may ultimately issue less than that.

Even if the bonds are approved, Clearwater will have just about $50 million of the $64 million project budgeted.

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There are a few ways the city could make up the difference.

Clearwater could sell some of its land downtown. A recent economic analysis showed that a developer buying city-owned land downtown to build high-rise condominiums could net the city tens of millions ― even in the anemic downtown housing market.

Related story: Clearwater wants residents downtown. This study shows why that’s not happening.

But those parcels ― the former Harborview site on the corner of Cleveland Street and Osceola Avenue; the old City Hall property on the north side of Pierce Street and Osceola and a vacant lot that was formerly owned by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the south side of Pierce Street and Osceola ― surround Imagine Clearwater’s signature park. Condominiums, which often have seasonal residents, may not do enough to activate the downtown waterfront.

Potential apartment developments might do more, but they wouldn’t make the city much money, the economic analysis showed.

The city could also find some or all of the $14 million by shuffling around its long-term priorities. Instead of paying for certain capital fund projects funded by Pinellas sales taxes as they’re currently scheduled, the city could delay them.

Essentially, even if they pass the bonds, Clearwater’s City Council will have to balance its goals for Imagine Clearwater with its financial realities.

Ravins, for one, said he’s confident the city will be able to afford the project.

“Financially, I don’t have any doubt that we will be able to find a way to make it work,” he said.

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